White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly defended President Trump on Thursday, saying that Trump had “bravely” called families of four fallen American soldiers.
Kelly’s appearance was an attempt to manage a growing controversy over Trump’s contacts with the families of slain service members.
“Most Americans don’t know what happens when we lose one of our soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines or Coast Guardsmen in combat,” he said.
For Kelly, the reality of death on the battlefield strikes close to home.
The 67-year-old retired four-star general served for more than 40 years in the Marines, and during his years of service he experienced two losses that were intensely personal: that of Lance Cpl. Chance Phelps, killed in action when his unit was ambushed in Iraq in 2004 while providing convoy escort to Kelly, who was the assistant division commander at the time; and that of his son, Second Lt. Robert Kelly, in 2010, who was killed when he stepped on hidden explosives in Afghanistan.
A comrade’s death
In Thursday’s press briefing, Kelly discussed what happens when a service member is killed in action:
Their buddies wrap them up in whatever passes as a shroud, puts them on a helicopter as a routine and sends them home. Their first stop along the way is when they’re packed in ice, typically at the airhead, and then they’re flown to, usually, Europe, where they’re then packed in ice again and flown to Dover Air Force Base, where Dover takes care of the remains, embalms them, meticulously dresses them in their uniform with the — with the medals that they’ve earned, the emblems of their service, and then puts them on another airplane linked up with a casualty officer escort that takes them home.
Kelly knows this sad ritual all too well.
In April 2004, Kelly’s unit came under what he later called a “complex ambush” near an American outpost in the rural town of Mahmudiyah, Iraq. As the group of Marines fought their way out of the attack, Pfc. Chance Phelps (posthumously promoted to lance corporal) was killed by gunfire.
Kelly was “nearly right next to” Phelps, 19, when he was killed instantly while manning the gun turret, Kelly wrote in a letter to Lt. Col. Michael Strobl, the officer who escorted Phelps’s casket back to the United States, describing that day’s turn of events and the final moments of Phelps’s short life.
The convoy of five vehicles had been caught in an ambush, triggered when the lead vehicle was struck by an improvised explosive device, Kelly wrote. The other vehicles maneuvered to try to regain control of the situation, coming under intense enemy fire.
“Your Marine’s vehicle was called forward to try and close the back door and prevent the guerrillas escape so we could kill them, and after accomplishing the maneuver and putting his gun in action, he was hit,” Kelly wrote.
“We collected up wounded, dead, and all equipment from the destroyed HMMWV [Humvee], then walked out of the KZ [kill zone] shooting the entire time until we were clear,” Kelly continued.
Back at the combat base, the Marines gathered to remember their fallen comrade, “only just out of high school last May.”
“His buddies spent a few quiet moments and we talked about the loss, and what he meant — what he was like — to them all,” Kelly wrote. “Everyone offered a vignette, most were silly or funny, but that’s the kind of guy he was.”
Strobl’s journey with Phelps is chronicled in the movie “Taking Chance,” which Kelly mentioned in his remarks Thursday.
A son’s death
On Thursday, Kelly also discussed the role of the casualty officer in breaking the tragic news of death to family members.
…a casualty officer typically goes to the home very early in the morning and waits for the first lights to come on. And then he knocks on the door. Typically, the mom and dad will answer, the wife. And if there is a wife, this is happening in two different places. If the parents are divorced, three different places. And the casualty officer proceeds to break the heart of a family member and stays with that family until — well, for a long, long time. Even after the internment.
For Kelly, the visit came just after 6 a.m. on Nov. 9, 2010. Kelly answered the door at his home in the Washington Navy Yard. Standing outside on the porch was Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., one of Kelly’s oldest and closest friends.
The instant Kelly saw Dunford, dressed in his service uniform, he knew his son Robert was dead.
Months later, in an email interview with the Washington Post, Kelly tried to put into words the pain he felt that morning.
“It was disorienting, almost debilitating,” he wrote in an e-mail. “At the same time my mind went through in detail every memory and image I had of Robert from the delivery room to the voice mail he’d left a few days before he died. . . . It was as graphic as if I was watching a video. . . . It really did seem like hours but was little more than a second or so.”
Robert was 29, and at the time of his death, Kelly and his two sons had participated in a combined 11 combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Robert had surprised his family when, just days after graduating from Florida State University in 2003, he enlisted in the Marine Corps. His older brother, John, had joined as an officer two years earlier.
Kelly is the most senior U.S. military officer to lose a child in Iraq or Afghanistan, and it was a devastating loss for the family. But the general’s status as a Gold Star parent also endeared him to rank-and-file troops, as the Military Times reported.
“They view him not as an imposing four-star commander, but as one of them: a brawler, a man who has endured the very worst of war, and a general officer who has eschewed the political correctness often exhibited by individuals who attain such rank,” the Military Times wrote.
Kelly’s surviving son is currently serving in Iraq.
The phone calls that really matter
On Thursday, Kelly also sought to clarify the typical nature of interactions between senior U.S. officials and Gold Star families.
As the Washington Post’s Dan Lamothe reported, Kelly explained that the process has never typically involved a phone call from the president to Gold Star families. Rather, letters were the more common response.
“I don’t believe any president, particularly when the casualty rates are very, very high, that presidents call,” Kelly said.
As a Marine Corps general, Kelly had spoken with scores of grieving parents and written hundreds of condolence letters, The Post’s Greg Jaffe reported. In each of those interactions, he tried to explain why the loss of a beloved child was meaningful, noble and worth the family’s pain.
“I guess over time I had convinced myself that I could imagine what it would be like to lose a son or daughter,” he said in an interview in 2011. “You try to imagine it so that you can write the right kind of letters or form the right words to try to comfort. But you can’t even come close. It is unimaginable.”
“The only phone calls a family receives are the most important phone calls they can imagine, and that is from their buddies,” Kelly said.
“In my case, hours after my son was killed, his friends were calling us from Afghanistan, telling us what a great guy he was. Those are the only phone calls that really matter.”
Meanwhile, on Thursday night, Trump took to Twitter, again criticizing Rep. Frederica S. Wilson (D-Fla.), a friend of the family of slain service member Sgt. La David T. Johnson.
The Fake News is going crazy with wacky Congresswoman Wilson(D), who was SECRETLY on a very personal call, and gave a total lie on content!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 20, 2017
Wilson was with Johnson’s widow when the president called and listened to the conversation on speakerphone. The congresswoman has said that the Johnson family was “astonished” by Trump’s remarks, and that the widow was “crying the whole time.” Kelly appeared to effectively confirm Wilson’s account. Johnson’s aunt, who raised him as her own son after his mother died when he was young, has backed up Wilson’s version of events.
Greg Jaffe contributed to this report.