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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)

Robert's platoon occupied an isolated patrol base in Sangin district, an area where British forces had been losing ground to the Taliban. Soldiers and Marines at larger, established bases speak to their families almost daily on cellphones. At Robert's isolated patrol base, there was no cellphone coverage or Internet service, just "ammo and big rats," he said in a rare letter home.

Throughout the fall, his 1,000-man battalion took part in some of the most intense fighting of the 10-year-old war, killing dozens of Taliban fighters and slowly pushing them back. Robert's father followed his son's battalion over the Pentagon's classified Internet.

"I know you guys have taken some licks in the last few days," the elder Kelly wrote in a letter dated Oct. 15. As a platoon commander, Robert was now responsible for every patrol that left the base. Kelly knew it was an enormous burden.

"Robert you will likely lose one or more of your precious Marines if you haven't already," the elder Kelly continued. "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. . . . Combat is so inhumane; you must help your men maintain their humanity as well as their sense of perspective and proportion."

On the day Kelly mailed the letter to his son, Lance Cpl. Colin Faust, one of Robert's Marines, stepped on a land mine and lost part of his left leg. The next day, a sergeant in Robert's platoon was killed and a lance corporal lost his right arm when a land mine detonated under them.

On Oct. 19, Robert's commanders brought satellite phones to his remote base so he and his Marines could talk to their increasingly anxious spouses. In 2007, Robert had married his girlfriend, Heather, who had asked him to a "Kappa Krush" sorority party during his senior year of college. She had stuck with him through boot camp, an Iraq tour and a seven-month sea tour in 2006. This was their first deployment as a married couple.

Robert's call from Sangin kept being dropped, so Heather ran out to the driveway, hoping for better reception. He quickly told her to call his father and ask him to check in on two of his Marines who had just arrived at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda.

The elder Kelly and Robert's sister, Kathleen, had been making almost daily trips to visit Marines from Robert's unit. Second Lt. Cameron West, one of Robert's closest friends from his battalion, was still in intensive care when Kelly first visited him. West's right leg was gone, and his eye was bandaged shut. He had just woken after being unconscious for six days.

Heather, who had been to West's apartment at Camp Pendleton, mentioned that he liked John Wayne memorabilia. So in late October, the elder Kelly bought him a fleece John Wayne blanket for his hospital bed.

In his last calls home, on Oct. 29, Robert sought to ease his family's growing worry. His platoon had flown into one of the larger forward operating bases to attend a memorial service for one of his Marines who had been killed a week earlier. Robert pressed his mother and sister for updates on his Marines at Bethesda.

He even managed to reach 2nd Lt. James Byler, a good friend who had lost his legs in a bomb blast and was still in intensive care. A nurse brought a phone into Byler's room, and Robert told him he'd soon be back doing CrossFit, a workout popular with Marines. Byler let out a groggy laugh.

Robert couldn't reach his father but left him a brief phone message. Before he flew back to his tiny patrol base, he dashed off a final e-mail to his wife. "I always think I do not want to call you because I will be homesick, but I end up doing it and leave the phone tent with a smile on my face," Robert wrote. "I love you so much and appreciate you being a great sport in all of this craziness. . . . One month down and a lot of months to go, but I am doing what I want to do with my life."

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