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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.

Kelly's concerns have been echoed of late by generals, lawmakers and top Pentagon civilians. "I worry that we could wake up one day and that the American people will no longer know us, and we won't know them" Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote in January.

Former congressman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) recently lamented to Foreign Policy magazine that "those who protect us are psychologically divorced from those who are being protected."

He'd 'want you to have it'

In mid-February, Kelly received word that Lance Cpl. Sebastian Gallegos, one of his son's Marines from Afghanistan, had declined to accept the Purple Heart he had earned. Gallegos's right arm was severed in an October bomb blast that had killed his squad leader, Sgt. Ian M. Tawney, 25.

The 21-year-old Marine couldn't fathom accepting an honor for an event that had taken his friend's life. Gallegos was lying next to a mortally wounded Tawney as the helicopter left Sangin. "I told him I loved him and watched him die," Gallegos recalled. A few weeks later, Tawney's wife gave birth to a baby girl.

Kelly offered to fly to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, where Gallegos was being treated, to present the award. Gallegos told him it wasn't necessary.

"Robert would want you to have it," Kelly insisted over the phone.

The ceremony was held in a prefabricated building on the hospital campus. A few minutes before it began, Kelly asked Gallegos to look at a picture of Robert that had been taken on the morning he died. Robert was talking to another Marine and grimacing. "It is the only picture I can ever remember of him in which he wasn't smiling," Kelly said.

He wanted to get the name of the Marine in the picture and ask him why Robert was so irritated. Kelly knew his son as a happy, funny and gentle young man. Now he was trying to better understand him as the battle-hardened combat leader that he had become, he said. Gallegos passed along the name.

The ceremony began around noon. About a dozen of Gallegos's family members took seats on leather couches facing an American flag and a red Marine Corps banner. The women all wore black dresses and heels. Gallegos's father, a former Army Special Forces sergeant, wore a new straw cowboy hat, polished cowboy boots and a tie.

The official ceremony took about 30 seconds. Kelly and Gallegos stood facing each other at the front of the room. The young Marine looked at the ground as Kelly read the award citation and pinned the small purple-and-gold heart to his camouflage uniform. The general gripped Gallegos's left hand and squeezed his shoulder, just above his stump. Gallegos's wife beamed with pride.

After the ceremony, Gallegos's family formed a huddle around their Marine. Gallegos, who had passed up a scholarship offer from Columbia University to enlist, had 12 more months of rehabilitation and then he planned to go to college somewhere in Texas. He wanted to stay close to his family, he said.

His wife wrapped an arm around his waist, put her head on his shoulder and rested a neatly manicured hand on his chest. For the first time that day, Gallegos looked happy and relaxed. He was finally enjoying the moment that he had resisted for months.

Kelly watched from across the room. "They are kids," he whispered. "Look at them. They are just kids."

Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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