Quilted valor: Special Agent shares 24-year legacy

  • Published
  • By Thomas Brading
  • OSI Public Affairs

Amid the endless cornfields of America's heartland sits Calmar, Iowa—a close-knit community where Chief Master Sgt. Kelly Luzum first embarked on a 24-year military journey spanning the globe. 

In late July, as OSI Region 3's leading enlisted Special Agent, his hometown recognized his military service with a quilt, handcrafted by two fellow Iowans—both a tribute to his career and a reminder that the community cherishes its own.

“Chief’s story isn't just about his decorated military career; it’s a reminder that no matter how far we travel in service to our nation, our communities remain a part of us,” said Col. Brian Alexander, OSI 3rd Field Investigations Region commander.

Growing up in this tight-knit Midwestern community, Luzum experienced a nurturing environment where every neighbor was like an extended family member, he said. This taught him about unity and shared responsibility. 

“To me, the definition of a community is where you are raised by everybody,” Luzum said. “Everybody's looking out for each other.”

But like many young souls, with adulthood came aspirations of a world beyond the familiar horizons. As 1999 rolled around, while many of his Iowa peers gravitated toward college or sticking around Calmar, Luzum stood at a crossroads: continued education or the military. 

At the time, he said college didn't resonate with his personal aspirations or financial outlook.

“I wanted a different path than most from my hometown,” Luzum said. 

His decision led him to the Air Force. There, as part of Security Forces, he quickly took on the responsibility of protecting high-value aircraft, a task that required discipline and precision.

“Where else but here, could a young man sit on a flightline with an M16, guarding multi-billion-dollar aircraft?" he said, looking back. 

During his initial enlistment from 2000 to 2004 with the 28th Security Forces Squadron at Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota, Luzum deployed to both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. It was on these deployments that he first crossed paths with OSI Special Agents.

What especially piqued his interest was the Protective Services Operations, or PSO, an OSI mission akin to the Secret Service but tailored for the Air Force. Intrigued by PSO’s role in safeguarding senior leaders, Luzum set his sights on OSI.

"In the PSO mission, I got to travel around the globe and see the world and experience the Air Force in a completely different way,” he said. 

While today's Security Forces Defenders collaborate with OSI Special Agents on PSO teams, during Luzum's early years, the sole entry to PSO was through a direct induction into OSI. Committed to this unique role, Luzum eagerly took the leap and became a full-fledged Special Agent in 2004. 

From Dec. 2004 to Dec. 2005, Luzum fully embraced his role at OSI Det. 331 at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, after which, he plunged deep into the world of PSO. Tasked with the responsibility of safeguarding the military's top brass, he stood guard over influential figures such as the Chief of Staff of the Air Force and the Commander, United States Transportation Command.  

But these weren’t just assignments; it was a whirlwind global mission, providing a perspective that only a few can claim. 

"I've been to six of the seven continents as a Special Agent,” he said. “As personal security for top generals, I've supported critical global missions. But to be honest, I've lost count of the countries I've visited.”

Over the years that followed, he broadened his horizons and took on diverse investigations. By doing so, he ascended into more strategic leadership roles. For example, beyond personal security, Luzum has delved into an array of OSI missions, encompassing everything from criminal investigations and counterintelligence to counter-narcotics and force protection.

In addition, Luzum's early hesitation about college stood in stark contrast to his educational accomplishments. He has earned a Bachelor's in Criminal Justice from the American Military University, as well as a Master’s in Strategic Intelligence from the National Intelligence University.

“To lead alongside Chief lets me witness his leadership style of blending small-town values with world-class excellence. In every operation, in every investigation, he represents the very best of OSI,” Alexander said. 

Throughout his decades-long military career, the warmth of his close-knit Iowa community never faded, he said. It was a constant, grounding reminder of his roots. 

"I think it's about realizing where you’re from, and being grateful for the opportunities you get," Luzum said.

Although he knew his hometown bond remained strong and unbroken, this connection vividly came to life through the Quilts of Valor Foundation.

Deeply entrenched in local communities, the QOVF is a national effort where volunteers, often from a servicemember's own hometown, handcraft quilts. To Luzum, these creations are more than fabric designs; they embody a community's gratitude and respect, he said, offering an embrace of warmth and appreciation to servicemembers touched by the rigors of war.

Luzum understands these rigors intimately, he said, like during his one-year deployment in Kirkuk, Iraq, when he was assigned to counter Improvised Explosive Device missions. In this role, he investigated IEDs and post-blast events, navigating the aftermath of attacks in a hostile environment. 

It is these experiences, he said, that make the warmth and care stitched into each quilt from his community even more poignant and meaningful.

“In the heart of the Midwest, quilts are an integral part of who we are,” Luzum said. “Recognizing the love, dedication, and painstaking effort in every quilt, and knowing my community goes that extra mile—it’s deeply moving.”

Luzum's parents, who still reside in Calmar, nominated him for a quilt as a token of gratitude for his long-standing military service. To the Chief, the warmth this quilt provides surpasses anything he could imagine. Growing up in an area where quilts often mature into treasured heirlooms, this gesture struck a deep chord.

“This quilt, crafted by the hands of his own community, is not just a gesture of appreciation, it is also a profound acknowledgment that his life’s work, his character, and his sacrifices have not gone unnoticed,” Alexander said. 

Although his military career boasts numerous accolades, from the Defense Meritorious Service Medal to the Air Force Combat Action Medal, Luzum said his quilt holds unparalleled significance. It represents more than just a recognition of his service; it's a tribute to his roots and the community that nurtured him.

“The dedication and love sewn into these quilts are unmatched,” he said. “Medals, while honoring achievements, are pinned to your chest. They don’t offer the comfort or the emotional warmth that a quilt does. When wrapped in the quilt, I don’t just feel warmth—I feel home.”