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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 congratulates Lance Cpl. Sebastian Gallegos after presenting the Marine with a Purple Heart at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio.
Lt. Gen. John F. Kelly congratulates Lance Cpl. Sebastian Gallegos after presenting the Marine with a Purple Heart at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio. (Nikki Kahn)

The war was something new in early 2003, and like most Americans, Robert had spent the spring glued to the live television coverage of U.S. tanks converging on Baghdad.

One year later, Robert was a private first class fighting house to house in the battle for Fallujah, the largest and bloodiest urban battle for U.S. troops since Vietnam.

On the night the offensive began, the elder Kelly came home early from work and urged his wife to steel herself for the worst. "Robert is right in the middle of it," he told her.

Robert emerged from the three-week assault physically unscathed, but shaken by the violence. Six Marines in his 150-man company were killed, three dozen were wounded, and the rest suffered a psychological toll. By this point, the war was no longer being beamed live to the United States on cable television.

"It was weird to read mail again, a reminder that other people's lives go on while I am here," he wrote in a letter dated Nov. 19, 2004, to his best friend from high school. "Things have not been going so well. I am having a lot of trouble dealing with this [expletive]. It is hard to explain right now. . . . I just want to go home and see my family and friends. I really want to sit down with my dad and talk."

Robert told his father that he was especially bothered by an incident in which his platoon was taking fire from insurgents in an underground bunker. The Marines' interpreter screamed at them to surrender. When they continued to shoot, Robert's unit used explosives to blow them out of the bunker.

"He mentioned that it must have been a horrible way to die," his father recalled. "It wasn't as clean as he thought it would be. He felt bad about the whole thing, and I told him that was human."

In 2008, Robert moved from the enlisted to the officer ranks and was commissioned as a second lieutenant. Because his father was deployed as commander of U.S. forces in western Iraq, Robert's brother administered the oath. The change meant Robert would be responsible for the lives of three dozen Marines.

Robert, who inherited his father's prominent nose, bushy eyebrows and sly smile, was seven years older than most second lieutenants and one of the few platoon leaders in his brigade with combat experience.

Before his platoon deployed last September, Robert sent a blast e-mail to his friends and family. If people were wondering what to put in care packages, batteries, wet wipes and protein bars were best, he wrote. A simple letter from home was "always welcome."

Mostly, though, he wanted his friends and family to care about a war that had largely faded from the public's consciousness. The midterm congressional elections were only a month away. Hardly any candidates were talking about Afghanistan. Less than 2 percent of voters rated it their top issue.

"Try to keep your eye on the news," Robert wrote from Camp Pendleton, Calif. "It will be good to know that people are paying attention to what the 32 Marines with me will be accomplishing."

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