What You Don’t Know About Gen. John Kelly

Gen. John Kelly

Gen. John Kelly Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

The four-star boy from Boston brings to DHS the grief of losing friends to America’s drug epidemic and a son to the war on terrorism.

In retired Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly, President-elect Donald Trump has nominated for the Homeland Security Department an outspoken, media-friendly combat veteran who lost a son to the war on terrorism and dozens of childhood friends to the war on drugs.

If you think Gen. Jim Mattis is a gruff talker, wait ’til you get a load of Kelly. The boy from Boston was basically muzzled by President Obama’s Pentagon in his final months as the leader of U.S. Southern Command. But he rose to the top exactly because of that frank talk and advice, previously serving as the three-star senior military aide alongside Defense Secretary Robert Gates and commanding troops through the crucible of Iraq’s Anbar province.

As the commander of all U.S. troops south of Mexico, Kelly called border security an “existential” threat—not for the people crossing but because of the economic instability rife across Central and South America driving trafficking and instability. He begged Congress for more attention to transnational organized crime, trafficking and the root causes for America’s ills from the south. He was as close with liberal human rights groups as he was with grizzled Marine fighters. And he was motivated at his core by the fallacies of men.

At an awards dinner by Human Rights First, Kelly told me America’s demand for drugs was a bigger concern than the drug runners coming from the south and needed more attention. He’s warned Congress of the same concern, and he spoke out against legalizing marijuana. The military and law enforcement could pick off drug cartels all day, he’d say, but until the demand stops, this country will have a national security problem. That wasn’t just a conclusion of his observations as SOUTHCOM commander. That was because, he told me, all but one of about 25 of his childhood friends had died from alcohol or drugs. All but one.

Before he was watching the U.S. border, Kelly spent much of his career fighting terrorists in the Middle East and Afghanistan. Many in the defense community know Kelly because of the famous eulogy he gave for his own son, 2nd Lt. Robert Kelly, who was killed in Afghanistan. The Washington Post’s Greg Jaffe wrote a remarkable story about the moment, a Veteran’s Day speech in 2010. It wasn’t an exploration of grief. It was a halftime speech to motivate a tired military. It was a call to the nation.

“Yes, we are at war, and are winning, but you wouldn’t know it because successes go unreported, and only when something does go sufficiently or is sufficiently controversial, it is highlighted by the media elite that then sets up the ‘know it all’ chattering class to offer their endless criticism,” Kelly said. “These self-proclaimed experts always seem to know better—but have never themselves been in the arena. We are at war and like it or not, that is a fact. It is not Bush’s war, and it is not Obama’s war, it is our war and we can’t run away from it.”

What most probably don’t know is that Kelly took Jaffe’s article with him to Afghanistan’s Sangin valley. Accompanying then-Defense Secretary Gates, he went to Forward Operating Base Sabit Qadam, where his son’s unit, the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, were still deployed. I’ll never forget that visit. We had covered dozens of “troop talks” where a defense secretary comes to a spit-shined and polished room or courtyard of troops standing quiet in formation looking their best, gives a short speech and then shakes hands, takes pictures and hands out challenge coins.

This visit was different. When we arrived at the gravel courtyard in southern Afghanistan, the 3/5 were at attention. But they looked exhausted. Their rifles were beat to shit, grip tape worn off at the butts. Their boots were torn and dirty. Their bodies banged and bandaged. The 3/5 had 29 men killed in action and another 150 wounded in the previous few months. They’d found nearly 1,000 bombs. They’d killed 400 and wounded maybe 200 more Taliban.

I don’t remember what Gates said that day; he always spoke too softly and got choked up every single time. I remember this: After the secretary finished and the picture line began, Kelly walked straight over to a small group of Marines across the courtyard. He let some of us follow. He found his son’s friends, gave them words of encouragement and showed them Jaffe’s article. A father encouraging the sons of fathers to fight on.

Less than a year ago, Kelly pondered what he would do after retiring from the Marine Corps. His answer: “I’d love to find a way to keep giving,” he continued. “My fear was of being offered a job that would be kind of a full-time position at a veterans organization or even in the government … I’d prefer to not be that, to come up the Beltway every day.”

What kind of DHS secretary will Gen. John Kelly be? Controversial. Outspoken. Tough on terrorism, tough on drugs and, undoubtedly, tough on himself.

CORRECTION: Gen. Kelly grew up in Brighton, a neighborhood of northwest Boston, not Southie, as this article originally indicated. 

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