In March 2003, as the 1st Marine Division raced up Mesopotamia toward Baghdad, two Marines-turned-writers—Bing West and retired Major General Ray “E-Tool” Smith—accepted a helicopter ride from the assistant division commander, John F. Kelly. Though zipping over the battlefield at 150 feet was infinitely preferable to bumping up a highway in nausea-inducing tracked vehicles, there were complications, as West and Smith later wrote in their book The March Up.
Over the town of Al Budayr, a regional Baath party stronghold, the helicopter came under heavy machine gun fire. As it dodged and twisted in flight, the door gunners engaging in duels with the Fedayeen below, Kelly and the two former Marines (both hardened veterans of close combat—Smith didn’t get the nickname “E-Tool” because he was good at digging holes) shouted instructions at the crew, trying to call out enemy locations and in the process talking over each other a great deal. After the immediate danger had passed, Smith let off some steam, marveling, “He had us cold. . . . It takes skill to miss something this big right in front of you. Thank God for piss poor shooters.”
Responding to his slightly unsettled passengers with the compassion and solicitousness for which Marine generals are famous, the Boston-born Kelly said, “I thought you guys were used to that!”
This seems to have been one of the lighter moments of the campaign for Kelly. Most of his time was spent doing the drudge work of an invasion: investigating why regimental convoys were being held up, monitoring underperforming officers, and insisting that civilians be looked out for despite the constant threat of suicide attacks. Kelly, who retires later this year as commander of U.S. Southern Command, was serving alongside a remarkable group of officers who would go on to lead the Corps and the U.S. military in the decade ahead: Joe Dunford Jr. (another Boston Marine), Jim Mattis, James Conway, and Jim Amos all had Marine commands in the march on Baghdad.
Like these men, Kelly would earn four stars, capping a career that began with his enlisting in the ranks in 1970, followed later by college and a commission. After Baghdad fell, he was appointed to lead an ad hoc force that continued north to seize Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown. When the 1st Marine Division returned to Iraq in 2004, he helped oversee some of the fiercest fighting of the war in Ramadi and Fallujah, before returning to the country for a third time in 2008, now commanding all Marines in Anbar and seeing the “Awakening” there through to its successful conclusion.
Despite the remarkable accomplishments of the units he headed, Marines who know Kelly say they cannot remember him ever taking credit. Inspired by his example, Kelly’s two sons, John and Robert, followed him into the Marines. The Kelly family was not an anomaly: It is increasingly unusual for someone serving in the military not to have been preceded by a father or other close relative.
Robert—who enlisted immediately after graduating college and became an infantry officer—deployed to Afghanistan as a platoon commander at the peak of the fighting in Helmand Province. Before dawn on November 9, 2010, General Kelly opened the door to his home at the Washington Navy Yard to see Joe Dunford, then serving as the Corps’s assistant commandant, standing on the porch in his service uniform. Robert, said by a Marine who served closely with him to be “just like his father,” someone who “was humble, knew his trade, was physically fit, tough as nails, charismatic, funny,” someone who had “a genuine concern for the well-being of Marines,” had been killed in Sangin.
Notifications of families of Marines killed in action are always done in person, and Dunford had decided to tell Kelly himself. What came next was, if possible, worse—as Kelly later put it to a reporter from the Washington Post, “I then did the most difficult thing I’ve done in my life. I walked upstairs, woke Karen to the news, and broke her heart.”
Kelly had earned the terrible distinction of being the most senior American officer to lose a child in Iraq or Afghanistan, and not a soul would have begrudged him taking some time. But November is when the Marine Corps celebrates its birthday, and Kelly had been invited to speak at a celebration in St. Louis four days after. He attended, and there delivered one of the most powerful American speeches of the last decade and a half of war.