Gen. John Kelly (Thomas Brown / Staff)
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At a time when the divide between the military and civilian world has never been greater, the words of Marine Gen. John Kelly have helped bridge the gap.
He didn’t set out to be a spokesman.
A former enlisted infantryman, Kelly rose to a four-star rank over a nearly 40-year career leading Marines, including many months in combat.
He had two sons who followed him into the Marine Corps. One, 1st Lt. Robert Michael Kelly, 29, was killed in Afghanistan in 2010 while leading a patrol in Sangin, at the time a hotly contested piece of terrain in Helmand Province.
Since then, the elder Kelly has resisted media efforts to make the story about him or his loss. But he has made a number of speeches to Marines, families and other groups.
His words have resonated, touching on themes that rarely get a wide airing. His talks have gone viral, earning him a broad following. “It extends beyond the Marine community,” says Marine Col. Chris Hughes.
Only days after he learned of his son’s death, Kelly kept a commitment to give a speech to the Semper Fi Society of St. Louis in November 2010.
It “would become one of the most memorable moments in the lives of everyone in the room,” according to the organization’s website.
In the speech, Kelly addressed a familiar theme: How only 1 percent of the nation has shouldered most of the burden of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But he went on to say voicing support for the troops alone is insufficient, suggesting that those sentiments can sometimes bleed into condescension.
“If anyone thinks you can somehow thank them for their service and not support the cause for which they fight — America’s survival — then these people are lying to themselves and rationalizing away something in their own lives, but more importantly they are slighting our warriors and mocking their commitment to this nation,” Kelly said.
Added Kelly: “It’s not Bush’s war. It’s not Obama’s war. It’s our war and we can’t run away from it.”
Thousands have been killed or injured in the wars, but they are not victims, Kelly said.
“The chattering class and all those who doubt America’s intentions, and resolve, endeavor to make them and their families out to be victims, but they are wrong,” Kelly wrote in prepared remarks for the speech. “We who have served and are serving refuse their sympathy.”
Kelly went on to speak not about his own loss, but about two Marines who were killed while stopping a suicide bomber in Iraq. Instead of running when it raced toward them, the Marines opened fire, saving 150 of their American and Iraqi colleagues inside a base.
For Cindy Kruger, whose son Sgt. Michael Hardegree died in Iraq, Kelly’s ability to make a major speech so soon after learning of his son’s death was an inspiration.
“For most of us it would be years before we could do that,” she said.
Those who know him say the remarks are in keeping with long-held beliefs and he doesn’t relish being thrust into the public spotlight.
“Service is a privilege,” says Marine Brig. Gen. Eric Smith, who has served with Kelly. “That’s what he’s talking about. We don’t want your sympathy at all. We’re not saying that in a negative way. We’re just saying you may not understand why we’re doing what we’re doing.”
Earlier this month Kelly spoke at the dedication of a memorial to 5th Marines, the unit his son was fighting with when he was killed.
Kelly said he struggled with the question of whether any cause was noble enough to justify losing a son.
“I realized the question was not mine to ask or to answer,” he said. “It didn’t matter what I thought. Only what he thought. The answer was his to give. He gave it by his actions that day, by the entire life that brought him to the instant he was lost.”
“That is the answer to all of my questions,” Kelly said. “I need nothing else.”