Comfort and Duty

John Kelly and His Son's Memory Bring Decency to White House

Trump loves generals. We shall see how long he continues to love this particular general, and how long this general will be able to countenance Trump.


Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

Six years and one day before the 2016 presidential election, Marine Second Lieutenant Robert Kelly was killed by a landmine while on foot patrol in Afghanistan.

His spirit now goes to work at the White House in the stalwart heart of his father, the new Chief of Staff, former Marine General John Kelly.

The pundits rightly say that John Kelly will bring much needed discipline.

The elder Kelly—and the younger Kelly’s spirit—will also bring something even more sorely needed.

The Kellys will bring decency.

Witness the departure of Anthony Scaramucci, White House communications director, gone in a New York minute.

And the decency that exorcised the odious Mooch was fortified by the example of the many other young Americans whom the elder Kelly has seen put themselves in harm’s way for the sake of the rest of us.

“In my three tours in combat as an infantry officer and commanding general, I never saw one of them hesitate, or do anything other than lean into the fire and with no apparent fear of death or injury take the fight to our enemies,” then Marine Lt. General Kelly said in a speech to the Semper Fi Society of St. Louis on November 13 of 2010.

He continued, “As anyone who has ever experienced combat knows, when it starts, when the explosions and tracers are everywhere and the calls for the Corpsman are screamed from the throats of men who know they are dying… when seconds seem like hours and it all becomes slow motion and fast forward at the same time—and the only rational act is to stop, get down, save yourself—they don’t. When no one would call them coward for cowering behind a wall or in a hole, slave to the most basic of all human instincts—survival—none of them do.”

He went on, “We can also take comfort in the fact that these young Americans are not born killers, but are good and decent young men and women who for going on ten years have performed remarkable acts of bravery and selflessness to a cause they have decided is bigger and more important than themselves.”

Four days before he spoke those words, the elder Kelly had been awakened by a 6:15 a.m. knock at the front door of home in the Washington Navy Yard in the nation’s capital. He would later tell The Washington Post that his wife, Karen, was still sleep when he answered the door. He saw his friend and fellow Marine General Joseph Dunford standing in a dress blue uniform. He knew before he was told that Robert had been killed.

“I then did the most difficult thing I’ve done in my life,” the elder Kelly told The Washington Post. “I walked upstairs, woke Karen to the news and broke her heart.”

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The elder Kelly and his wife subsequently issued a public statement:

“Our Robert was killed in action protecting our country, its people, and its values from a terrible and relentless enemy, on 9 November, in Sangin, Afghanistan. He was leading his Grunts on a dismounted patrol when he was taken. They are shaken, but will recover quickly and already back at it. He went quickly and thank God he did not suffer. In combat that is as good as it gets, and we are thankful. We are a broken hearted, but proud, family. He was a wonderful and precious boy living a meaningful life. He was in exactly the place he wanted to be, doing exactly what he wanted to do, surrounded by the best men on this earth—his Marines and Navy.

“The nation he served has honored us with promoting him posthumously to First Lieutenant of Marines. We will bury our son, now First Lieutenant Robert Michael Kelly USMC, in Arlington National Cemetery on 22 November…

“Our son Captain John Kelly USMC, himself a multi-tour combat veteran and the best big brother on this earth, will escort the body from Dover Air Force Base to Arlington. From the moment he was killed he has never been alone and will remain under the protection of a Marine to his final resting place.

“Many have offered prayers for us and we thank you, but his wonderful wife Heather and the rest of the clan ask that you direct the majority of your prayers to his platoon of Marines, still in contact and in ‘harm’s way,’ and at greater risk without his steady leadership.”

But in his November 13 speech, the elder Kelly made only a brief, indirect mention of his fallen son. He did speak at length about two other Marines.They had been killed in Ramadi on April 22 of 2008.

“Corporal Jonathan Yale and Lance Corporal Jordan Haerter, 22 and 20 years old respectively, one from each battalion, were assuming the watch together at the entrance gate of an outpost that contained a makeshift barracks housing 50 Marines,” the elder Kelly said. “The same broken down ramshackle building was also home to 100 Iraqi police, also my men and our allies in the fight against the terrorists in Ramadi, a city until recently the most dangerous city on earth and owned by Al Qaeda.

“Yale was a dirt poor mixed-race kid from Virginia with a wife and daughter, and a mother and sister who lived with him and he supported as well. He did this on a yearly salary of less than $23,000. Haerter, on the other hand, was a middle class white kid from Long Island. They were from two completely different worlds. Had they not joined the Marines they would never have met each other, or understood that multiple America’s exist simultaneously depending on one’s race, education level, economic status, and where you might have been born. But they were Marines, combat Marines, forged in the same crucible of Marine training, and because of this bond they were brothers as close, or closer, than if they were born of the same woman.

“The mission orders they received from the sergeant squad leader I am sure went something like: ‘Okay you two clowns, stand this post and let no unauthorized personnel or vehicles pass. You clear?’ I am also sure Yale and Haerter then rolled their eyes and said in unison something like: ‘Yes Sergeant,’ with just enough attitude that made the point without saying the words, ‘No kidding sweetheart, we know what we’re doing.’

“They then relieved two other Marines on watch and took up their post at the entry control point of Joint Security Station Nasser, in the Sophia section of Ramadi, al Anbar, Iraq. A few minutes later a large blue truck turned down the alley way—perhaps 60-70 yards in length—and sped its way through the serpentine of concrete jersey walls.”

The elder Kelly said he had later watched surveillance camera footage of what happened next.

‘You can watch the last six seconds of their young lives. Putting myself in their heads I supposed it took about a second for the two Marines to separately come to the same conclusion about what was going on once the truck came into their view at the far end of the alley. Exactly no time to talk it over, or call the sergeant to ask what they should do. Only enough time to take half an instant and think about what the sergeant told them to do only a few minutes before: “…let no unauthorized personnel or vehicles pass.” The two Marines had about five seconds left to live.

“It took maybe another two seconds for them to present their weapons, take aim, and open up. By this time the truck was half-way through the barriers and gaining speed the whole time. Here, the recording shows a number of Iraqi police, some of whom had fired their AKs, now scattering like the normal and rational men they were—some running right past the Marines. They had three seconds left to live.

“For about two seconds more, the recording shows the Marines’ weapons firing non-stop…the truck’s windshield exploding into shards of glass as their rounds take it apart and tore into the body of the son-of-a-bitch who is trying to get past them to kill their brothers—American and Iraqi—bedded down in the barracks totally unaware of the fact that their lives at that moment depended entirely on two Marines standing their ground. If they had been aware, they would have known they were safe…because two Marines stood between them and a crazed suicide bomber.

“The recording shows the truck careening to a stop immediately in front of the two Marines. In all of the instantaneous violence Yale and Haerter never hesitated. By all reports and by the recording, they never stepped back. They never even started to step aside. They never even shifted their weight. With their feet spread shoulder width apart, they leaned into the danger, firing as fast as they could work their weapons. They had only one second left to live.

“The truck explodes. The camera goes blank. Two young men go to their God. Six seconds. Not enough time to think about their families, their country, their flag, or about their lives or their deaths, but more than enough time for two very brave young men to do their duty… into eternity.”

The elder Kelly concluded, “That is the kind of people who are on watch all over the world tonight—for you.”

The younger Kelly was buried in Section 60, Grave 9480 at Arlington. The standard white headstone reads:

Robert Michael


1st LT

US Marine Corps



Sep 5 1981

Nov 9 2010

His spirit joined his father as the elder Kelly went on to become Senior Military Assistant to the Secretary of Defense and then the head of the U.S. Southern Command. The older Kelly’s foremost concern remained the conflict that had begun with the attack on the World Trade Center and had since claimed the lives of so many extraordinary young Americans. He would speak of the nation’s other one per cent, those who entered military service and fought while most of the country seemed to imagine it was not at war.

“If you think this war against our way of life is over because some of the self-appointed opinion-makers and chattering class grow ‘war weary,’ because they want to be out of Iraq or Afghanistan, you are mistaken,” he was quoted saying in 2014. “This enemy is dedicated to our destruction. He will fight us for generations, and the conflict will move through various phases as it has since 9/11.”

In early 2016, the elder Kelly retired. He was in his first year of civilian life when President Trump appointed him the Secretary for Homeland Security.

When I retired from the Marine Corps after 45 years, my biggest fear was being offered a full-time position in the government. I really didn’t want to come up the Beltway every day. I didn’t want to deal with the bureaucracy, didn’t want to mess with the politics,” he said in in April in a speech at George Washington University. “You see how that worked out.”

In  the GWU speech and on other occasions, the elder Kelly described America as “a nation under attack.” His critics found him to be too Trumpian in his efforts to stem illegal immigration from our southern border. Some were outraged when he spoke of separating undocumented parents from their kids as a way of deterring people from making the perilous journey up from Central America.

“Yes, I am considering, in order to deter more movement along this terribly dangerous network, I am considering exactly that,” he told CNN. “They will be well cared for as we deal with their parents.”

The elder Kelly was not just seeking to make good on rabble rousing pledges Trump had made during the campaign. He was a Marine on a mission who argued with the pragmatic logic of triage that the anxiety kids would suffer on being separated from their parents was nothing compared to the suffering of others being taken by human traffickers or perishing from the heat in the back of an unventilated tractor trailer.  He said of his DHS’s present and ongoing mission:

“If lawmakers do not like the laws they’ve passed and we are charged to enforce—then they should have the courage and skill to change the laws.”

He added, “Otherwise they should shut up and support the men and women on the front lines. My people have been discouraged from doing their jobs for nearly a decade, disabled by pointless bureaucracy and political meddling, and suffered disrespect and contempt by public officials who have no idea what it means to serve.”

Here was a genuine, deeply felt sentiment such as Trump merely voices. Trump simply seeks to manipulate. Kelly speaks from the heart, a heart at once hardened and softened by battle, a heart in which his son’s spirit lives on.

And he brought that along with him when he arrived at the White House on Monday to be sworn in as its new Chief of Staff. He raised his right hand and took the oath just as he had when he first joined the Marine Corps, as he had with each promotion, as he had when he took over HHS.

And, as he now set to work, he did so with the spirit of all the Marines who are dear to him. He is one White House Chief of Staff for whom Yale means not Yale University or Yale Law School, but Marine Corporal Jonathan Yale, posthumous recipient along with Lance Corporal Jordan Haerter of the Navy Cross.

He brings to the White House not just discipline, but actual decency that began by exorcising the Mooch.

Anybody who doubts that decency ultimately guides this true Marine on a mission need only consider a letter to his son in Afghanistan that the elder Kelly subsequently shared with The Washington Post. The letter was dated October 15, 2010, three weeks before the younger Kelly’s death.

“I know you guys have taken some licks in the last few days… Robert you will likely lose one or more of your precious Marines if you haven’t already. Do not let the men mope or dwell on the loss… Do not let them ever enjoy the killing or hate their enemy. It is impossible to take the emotion out of it, but try and keep it as impersonal and mechanical as you can. The Taliban have their job to do and we have ours. That’s it…”

He concluded, “Combat is so inhumane; you must help your men maintain their humanity as well as their sense of perspective and proportion.”

Humanity + Perspective + Proportion = Decency.

But now the equation is joined by Trump, who possesses precious little of those three elements.

Decency + Trump = ?!

Trump does love generals. We shall see how long he continues to love this particular general. We shall also see how long this general will be able to countenance Trump.

Toward the end of Kelly’s very first day, there was a report that the president himself had dictated an apparently misleading statement that Donald, Jr. gave regarding his meeting with a Russian attorney in Trump Tower during the campaign. There was talk that this might cause Special Counsel Robert Mueller to focus more on the possibility that the president engaged in obstruction of justice. A White House move to fire Mueller would cause Kelly to be party to moving against a fellow former Marine who is duty personified and fought in Vietnam, receiving a Bronze Star and Purple Heart.

What is certain is that as long as Kelly and the spirit that accompanies him remain in the White House, things there are not likely to get worse. They may actually get better.

The president presently so taken with Fox and Friends might even end up under the sway of Kelly and Son.