Mark Kelly and Gabrielle Giffords

OAUG COLLABORATE 12 Keynote Speakers

I arrived in Las Vegas yesterday for COLLABORATE 12, the annual conference of the Oracle Applications Users Group (OAUG).

Today, I attended the keynote speech by Mark Kelly. He is a very impressive person. He faced the toughest challenge I can imagine when his wife, former Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, was nearly assassinated.  He was a Navy combat pilot in Iraq, an astronaut on four space shuttle missions, and commanded the final flight of Space Shuttle Endeavour.

His talk opened with an inspiring, optimistic video, and he received a rousing welcome from the crowd. He was very funny too.

Mark Kelly grew up in New Jersey, with a twin brother who is also an astronaut. His father was a tough Irish policeman, and his mother was a waitress and a secretary. In the 1970’s, his mother decided to become a police officer too. After months of practice, she managed to scale a tall wall as part of the fitness requirement for the police department.

Mark’s first job was driving an ambulance in the tough sections of Newark, before going off to college.

His wife was a classic overachiever, becoming a Fulbright scholar and attending Cornell. They met in China on a trip. She ran her family’s company and was in the state senate in Arizona.

Mark decided in college that he would be the first person to walk on the planet Mars. He didn’t make it to Mars but he did make it into space four times.

After setting his goal, he decided he would get there by becoming a Naval aviator in 1986 (the year that the movie “Top Gun” came out). After starting flight school in Pensacola, he realized he was not as good a pilot as Maverick. His first landing on a carrier was about 100 miles offshore. As a 23 year old landing on a ship, it was “beyond scary”. He barely passed his carrier landing test.

Mark believes that how good you are at the beginning of something is not a good indicator of how good you’ll be at the end.  It’s a matter of practice, persistence and the drive to never, ever give up.

Life tends to be a set of challenges and obstacles to climb over. In August 1990, Mark was posted to Iraq, and in January 1991 (at age 25), he had his first combat missions in Iraq.  His airplane has 12 one thousand pound bombs. The first airplane that went out that night got shot down over southern Iraq. As he flew his mission, he could see the anti-aircraft artillery snaking up from the ground. They flew a few hundred miles into Iraq, to Basra, through an area of missiles. A missile came up and exploded right over their plane, and fortunately there were no holes in the plane. Even worse than seeing the first missile was seeing the second one.

On the way back from the mission, he flew 150 miles into Iran to avoid the missile fire. They were mistaken for an enemy fighter as they headed back to the carrier. Mark failed to communicate with the people he was working with. A lack of timely and accurate communication that night nearly cost him his life.

As it turned out, Mark’s wife Gabby had the riskier job serving her country. On January 8 2011, there was no countdown clock to the life-changing event of his wife being shot. Mark was in Houston at the time, visiting with his 15 year old daughter. He heard by cell phone from his wife’s chief of staff that she had been shot in the head.

He borrowed a friend’s airplane to fly to Tucson. His twin brother was in space at the time, on the International Space Station. Halfway there, CNN and Fox News reported that Gabby had died. Six other people died that day, but 30 minutes later, Mark found that Gabby had not in fact died. As he walked into the hospital, his cell phone rang. President Obama was calling to offer his support.

As Gabby started to recover, she suffered from aphasia, difficulty in speaking. This required a lot of patience in waiting for her to form the words.

Right after Gabby was injured, Mark had to make a decision about his own career. The final mission of the space shuttle Endeavor was coming up only three months after Gabby’s injury. About ten days later, Gabby regained consciousness, and was transferred to a rehab facility in Houston. Mark had to consider whether to go ahead with the space shuttle mission, considering what his wife would want. In Congress, she was the chairperson of the Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee. Each flight on the space shuttle was riskier than storming the beaches of Normandy in World War Two.

The power of the human spirit is an incredible thing – seeing Gabby fighting so hard to survive and then to recover, it reminds all of us to deny the possibility of failure.

Gabby went back to Congress to vote on the bill to raise the Federal debt ceiling last summer. It was a controversial vote, and most members of Congress would love to have an excuse not to go vote. Mark had to pack for his wife for that trip, and they flew to DC together. Apparently he forgot some important things.

Eight months after being shot in the head, Gabby was able to have her voice heard in that vote. “One small woman brought Washington to its feet. We can compromise on how we fund America, but we cannot compromise on how we define America. That definition is Gabrielle Giffords.”

Things can change in an instant. It’s important to have gratitude and faith – faith in God, in our family and in our friends.

Gabrielle wanted to send us all a message that Mark read: “Be passionate, be courageous, be strong, be your best.”

It was a very moving speech, very motivating and inspiring. I’m really glad I attended it today.

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