Boston native John Kelly, Trump cabinet pick, known for shining spotlight elsewhere
By Kelly Thomas | December 16, 2016, 9:57 EST
When Marine General John Kelly gave the keynote speech at the inaugural event of Massachusetts Fallen Heroes in Boston six years ago, he left out an important detail: the death of his son in combat in Afghanistan three weeks before.
Colleagues and friends say it’s just like Kelly, who is President-elect Donald Trump’s pick to head the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, not to call attention to himself.
But his talk still made an impression.
Chris Lessard, the program director of the organization, which helps veterans and families who have lost loved ones in the military, recalled Kelly’s speech in an interview with New Boston Post.
Lessard served in the Marines and saw combat.
“Hearing him speak, I wanted to re-enlist right then, that’s how powerful, how inspiring he is,” Lessard said.
Born in 1950 in Brighton to Irish Catholic immigrants, John Kelly craved adventure from the start. In a commemorative piece written by the Marines at the time of his retirement, Kelly recalled how, as a teen-ager, he hitchhiked across the country and back again, at one point stowing himself away in an empty boxcar on a freight train from Seattle to Chicago. His first time overseas was as a U.S. Merchant Marine in the 1960s, he also said, bringing 10,000 tons of beer to the troops in Vietnam.
After a year in the Merchant Marines, Kelly enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps in 1970, serving for two years before being discharged as a sergeant. Reflecting on his choice to join the Marines, Kelly told a military newspaper: “In the America I grew up in, every male was a veteran; my dad, my uncle and all the people on the block. … [Y]ou assumed you were going to go into service when your time came.”
He added that though he’d always known he wanted to go to college after his original enlistment and return to the Corps as an officer, at that time he was still unsure of committing to a full career in uniform.
Following his discharge in 1972, Kelly attended the University of Massachusetts at Boston. When he graduated in 1976 he made his decision. Kelly went back to the Marines, but this time via Officer Candidate School, earning a commission as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Corps.
Despite his original uncertainty about a military career, Kelly spent the next 40 years leading troops at every level, earning the rank of brigadier general in 2003 while deployed in Iraq. Over the next 13 years, he would rise through the ranks, eventually attaining the status of four-star general in 2012 when he assumed command of the U.S. Southern Command, which comprises southern and Central America including the detention center at Guantanamo Bay. Though he never outright criticized the Obama administration’s plan to close Guantanamo, he voiced his disagreement with several of the administration’s policies, including the closure of the detention center and the inclusion of women in combat roles.
Kelly’s personable, down-to-earth leadership style made him a favorite among the troops throughout his career, and his time as an enlisted man distinguished him as an unusually relatable officer, one who often voiced his regret that promotions meant more distance between him and his men.
Some of Trump’s selections for his cabinet so far have drawn sharp controversy. But Kelly’s nomination has gained approval across the aisle. President Barack Obama’s current defense secretary, Ashton Carter, Carter called the retired general a “dedicated, principled leader” and praised his commitment to service.
Others in the defense community are also pleased about the nomination. Speaking with New Boston Post, Kevin Ryan, a retired brigadier general in the U.S. Army and current Director of Defense and Intelligence at Harvard’s Belfer Center, said: “I’ve seen a lot of generals and senior government officials in my 11 years at Harvard. General Kelly is one of the top to have visited the Center. … He’ll do a great job at the Department.”
Dan Magoon, a Boston firefighter and U.S. Army combat veteran (2003-2007) who serves as the executive director of Massachusetts Fallen Heroes, calls Kelly “one of the greatest military leaders in my generation.”
Kelly also holds a somber distinction among officers. He is the highest-ranking U.S. military official to have lost a child in combat.
Both of Kelly’s sons, John and Robert, followed their father’s footsteps and joined the Marines. Robert, the younger of the two, ended up leading a platoon in Afghanistan, locked in one of the war’s fiercest battles against the Taliban.
A devout Catholic, Kelly frequently emailed his friends and families during Robert’s deployment, asking for prayers as his son navigated the minefields of Afghanistan. “We are doing a Novena a minute down here and there is no end in sight,” he wrote, warning relatives that Robert was “in the thick of it.”
Eleven days later, on November 9, 2010, General Joseph Dunford, a fellow Bostonian and a close friend of Kelly’s, rang the family’s doorbell. Robert had stepped on a landmine while out on patrol and died.
Kelly soldiered on, serving another five-plus years before leaving the military earlier this year.
Kelly, upon retiring this past January, said one of his great fears was being asked to come back to Washington D.C. and work in the government. Nevertheless, following Trump’s announcement of his nomination, he released a statement assuring the American people that as the head of DHS, he will approach his new role “with a seriousness of purpose and a deep respect for our laws and Constitution.”