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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.

About 12 hours later, the elder Kelly e-mailed his extended family in Boston, preparing them for the possibility that Robert might be maimed or killed. Kelly knew that Robert went out on almost every patrol with his men through mine-filled fields. One of the Marines at Bethesda told him that Robert was "living on luck."

"I write you all to just let you know he's in the thick of it and to keep him in your thoughts," Kelly typed. "We are doing a Novena a minute down here and there is no end in sight."

On Oct. 31, Kelly sent a second e-mail to his eldest sister, the family matriarch. "I am sweating bullets," he confided. "Pray. Pray. Pray. He's such a good boy . . . and Marine."

'Fight to bring us home'

At 6:10 a.m. on Nov. 9, Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., one of Kelly's oldest and dearest friends, rang the doorbell at his home in the Washington Navy Yard. The instant Kelly saw Dunford, dressed in his service uniform, he knew Robert was dead.

As a Marine Corps general, Kelly had spoken with scores of grieving parents. He had written hundreds of condolence letters. In them, he tried to explain why the loss of a beloved child was meaningful, noble and worth the family's pain.

"I guess over time I had convinced myself that I could imagine what it would be like to lose a son or daughter," he said in an interview. "You try to imagine it so that you can write the right kind of letters or form the right words to try to comfort. But you can't even come close. It is unimaginable."

Months later,Kelly would struggle to describe the pain he felt on his front porch. "It was disorienting, almost debilitating," he wrote in an e-mail. "At the same time my mind went through in detail every memory and image I had of Robert from the delivery room to the voice mail he'd left a few days before he died. . . . It was as graphic as if I was watching a video. . . . It really did seem like hours but was little more than a second or so."

Kelly composed himself and moved down his front steps to speak with Dunford's wife and walk his friends into the house. His wife, Karen, was still asleep. "I then did the most difficult thing I've done in my life," Kelly said. "I walked upstairs, woke Karen to the news and broke her heart."

Four days later, Kelly stood in front of a microphone in St. Louis. He saw his speech there as a chance to remind people that the United States was still at war.

"We are in a life-and-death struggle, but not our whole country," he told the crowd. "One percent of Americans are touched by this war. Then there is a much smaller club of families who have given all."

He spoke of the anger that some combat veterans feel toward the war's opponents. "They hold in disdain those who claim to support them but not the cause that takes their innocence, their limbs and even their lives," he said.

Later, he clarified in an interview that he is opposed to indifference, not dissent. "I just think if you are against the war, you should somehow try to change it," he said. "Fight to bring us home."


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