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One of the military's most respected leaders has taken aim at an amorphous "chattering class" within the Pentagon and beyond who've questioned the mettle of today's Marines.
Using impassioned oration and drawing on raw personal experience, Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly is leveraging his clout as a Gold Star dad and the head of U.S. Southern Command to strike back at those who would suggest Iraq and Afghanistan veterans somehow don't meet the measure of previous generations. To the contrary, Kelly argues, today's troops "will do anything we ask if well led and they are confident we have their backs."
It's become a mission, the general told Marine Corps Times, one fueled by the loss of his Marine son more than three years ago in Afghanistan; the obligation he feels to comfort and reassure others who've also lost friends or loved ones; and a firm desire to mute the criticism he's heard directed at so-called millenials, a loose title assigned to those born during the 1980s and '90s. Such disparagement is not only unwarranted, Kelly said, it's utterly baseless.
"I can't count the number of times that I saw them in firefights, in Fallujah and Ramadi and other places, and I would just stand there in wonderment, thinking to myself: 'There's absolutely no reason on this earth why any human being would do what they're doing,' " Kelly said. "Every human being naturally would want to protect themselves, crawl in a hole, get down. And they don't.
"That's how Iwo Jima was taken. Guadalcanal. The Chosin Reservoir. If the Marines today are doing exactly the same thing their dads did in Vietnam, and their granddads did in Korea and World War II, then how in the hell can we say that they're not as good?"
Kelly is a career infantry Marine who left the Corps as an enlisted sergeant in 1972 before attending college and earning his commission. He's as salty as they come — a holdover, no doubt, from his bare-knuckled upbringing in Boston — and unafraid of speaking out, especially when it means sticking up for the rank and file.
A case in point: Last year, the four-star showed up at a legal hearing for a Marine captain the Corps sought to discipline over an immature video made by several enlisted men in his unit. While testifying as a character witness, Kelly said the young captain's treatment was heavy-handed — and that he was owed an apology.
As a one- and two-star general, Kelly spent about three years leading combat troops in Iraq's Anbar province, where some of the war's most explosive fighting raged. In 2011, as the senior military adviser to then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Kelly spent time in Afghanistan, including one noteworthy stop at Forward Operating Base Jackson in volatile Sangin district, where only four months earlier his son, 1st Lt. Robert Kelly, was killed by an enemy IED.
At Jackson, Gates ate lunch with a small group of noncommissioned officers, some of them from Robert Kelly's platoon with 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines. The secretary asked the men whether he could do anything for them, Kelly recalled.
"He again asked, emphasizing the fact that as the Secretary of Defense he could do just about anything for them," Kelly said. "Again a long silence, and then a scruffy Marine, with a recent buzz cut, who smelled like a goat as he was living in a FOB ... on the edge of the empire, stood up. He nervously shifted his weight and then, looking directly at the boss, said 'don't let them forget what we did here, sir.' Another stood up and said 'and don't let them ever forget the ones we are leaving behind.' "
It's these profound experiences, coupled with his childhood memories of neighborhood men reliving past wars, that shaped Kelly's thinking about the character of today's Marines. His most recent speeches, delivered in May in New York City and Boston, refute the notion that Marines are "war weary" after 13 years of continuous conflict. "Men and women like us," Kelly boomed, "never, ever grow weary of serving our nation."
As he has in previous speeches, Kelly evoked the story of two Navy Cross recipients, Lance Cpl. Jordan Haerter and Cpl. Jonathan Yale. Their tale of selflessness is well known throughout the Corps. On April 22, 2008, when a truck loaded with explosives barreled toward their post in Ramadi, they opened fire, causing the truck to blow up before it could enter a compound housing U.S. and Iraqi troops. Haerter and Yale were killed. Everyone inside was saved.
"You can't convince a person to do that unless they're very, very special," Kelly said. "Those two heroes knew they were going to die — there's no doubt in my mind — and they stood there blasting away until they went to God. So anyone who tells me that Marines today aren't as good is full of sh--."
His speech in New York addresses such extraordinary sacrifice. The willingness to risk all for a cause greater than oneself is almost lost upon American society, Kelly said.
He speaks with a father's affection of America's "1 percent" who espouse the same traits and beliefs as those who came before them. And in the same breath, Kelly lays waste to the notion that the troops and their families should be viewed as victims, and hammers the uninitiated "who think themselves so superior as to speak for us."
"To all those who for their own reasons dare to so patronizingly speak for us," he said in New York, "calling us victims and weary, but have never walked in our shoes, or stood by a flag-draped casket holding someone so precious, you can all go straight to — we'll speak for ourselves."
Generals are expected to speak truth to power. It's rare, however, for one to air his frustrations. Pressed to more clearly define those in the "chattering class" whom his speeches assail, Kelly edits his response diplomatically.
The Defense Department faces endless challenges, he said. Leaders are under "extreme pressure" to mitigate any negative publicity that can emanate from acts of misbehavior in the ranks, and they deserve great credit for weathering the storm. "In particular," he added, "the service chiefs, who I think as a group are heroic in their efforts to lead their services during this very, very difficult time."
Kelly was to deliver another speech May 26, Memorial Day, in Miami.
"They need to hear this," he said. "I'll never stop."