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Lt. Gen. John Kelly, who lost son to war, says U.S. largely unaware of sacrifice

Lt. Gen. John F. Kelly, nominated to the powerful position of Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates's senior military assistant, knows firsthand the pain and loss of many military families caused by war. On Nov. 9, 2010, his son 2nd Lt. Robert Kelly stepped on a land mine in Afghanistan and was killed.

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 2, 2011; 12:00 AM

Before he addressed the crowd that had assembled in the St. Louis Hyatt Regency ballroom last November, Lt. Gen. John F. Kelly had one request. "Please don't mention my son," he asked the Marine Corps officer introducing him.

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Four days earlier, 2nd Lt. Robert M. Kelly , 29, had stepped on a land mine while leading a platoon of Marines in southern Afghanistan. He was killed instantly.

Without once referring to his son's death, the general delivered a passionate and at times angry speech about the military's sacrifices and its troops' growing sense of isolation from society.

"Their struggle is your struggle," he told the ballroom crowd of former Marines and local business people. "If anyone thinks you can somehow thank them for their service, and not support the cause for which they fight - our country - these people are lying to themselves. . . . More important, they are slighting our warriors and mocking their commitment to this nation."

Kelly is the most senior U.S. military officer to lose a son or daughter in Iraq or Afghanistan. He was giving voice to a growing concern among soldiers and Marines: The American public is largely unaware of the price its military pays to fight the United States' distant conflicts. Less than 1 percent of the population serves in uniform at a time when the country is engaged in one of the longest periods of sustained combat in its history.

President Obama devoted only six sentences to the war in Afghanistan in his State of the Union address in January. The 25-second standing ovation that lawmakers lavished on the troops lasted almost as long as the president's war remarks.

Kelly has largely shunned public attention since his speech and his son's death. He discussed his speech and his son to provide insight into the lives and the burdens of military families.

"We are only one of 5,500 American families who have suffered the loss of a child in this war," he said in an e-mail. "The death of my boy simply cannot be made to seem any more tragic than the others."

On Tuesday, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said he had nominated Kelly to be his senior military assistant, a powerful position by virtue of its minute-by-minute proximity to the Pentagon chief. He would serve as a key liaison between the defense secretary and the top brass.

As in many military families, Kelly's two sons followed their father into the Marine Corps. The three Kelly men have participated in 11 combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade.

As one retired Marine Corps general noted in a condolence letter to Kelly a few days after his son's death: "Service to and sacrifice for the nation have become a legacy affair for a relatively small number of families."

'Living on luck'

A few days after graduating from Florida State University in 2003, Robert Kelly surprised his family by enlisting in the Marine Corps. His elder brother, John, had joined as an officer two years earlier. Their father was leading Marines in Iraq.


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