In February 2012, Gold Star Families of 109 Marines, soldiers, sailors or airmen lost in Iraq or Afghanistan since 9/11 came to the Marines’ Memorial Club in San Francisco to network with each other and to help each other with the grieving process. In the past seven years, we have worked with more than 600 Gold Star families.
This year, we invited Lieutenant General John Kelly, USMC to speak to the Gold Star families. Gen Kelly and his wife, Karen, are also Gold Star parents, having lost their son, 2ndLt Robert Kelly USMC, on 9 November 2010 in Afghanistan. Here are LtGen Kelly’s remarks:
I never met any of your loved ones… your sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, and spouses. I also don’t know how you came to know they were lost in the wars waged today and over the last ten years in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen and dozens of other locations around the world. I don’t know the details, but the stories are ultimately all the same. Most often it started with a knock on the door, or a ring of the doorbell in the early morning hours by a casualty officer who’d been sitting outside your house waiting anxiously for hours for the first lights to come on. He dreaded the mission he’d been assigned that day. He was not glad to be there, but he was privileged to be there as the duty is a sacred one. It is an honor to be called to do it. Most often the casualty officer is a complete stranger. Sometimes he’s your best friend. The minute you saw him standing there framed in the doorway you knew…you knew without being told…before he uttered his first words…you knew.
After that it varies. Some then steeled themselves to walk up stairs to wake a mother, your wife, and break her heart as yours was broken only moments before. Some drove to a daughter’s place of work to tell her about a big brother now gone, and tear another heart in two. When you could you started making the calls… to your other children, your siblings, to uncles and aunts, grandparents…and friends. It’s hard to get through it but you do…somehow…you had no choice. Every experience is different, but in the end it’s all the same. A family is brought to its knees in a grief that is unexpectedly physical in its impact on the body, unbearable to the mind, and agonizing to the heart. A grief that never goes away. Not even with the passage of time.
Then begins the waiting and the heartache seems to turn minutes to hours, and hours to days. You wait because there is little left to do as the military with precision, and reverence, brings your cherished loved one home to the country they served…to rest in the good earth of the America they loved. Some of us went to Dover, others elected to wait at home not wanting to double the hurt. It doesn’t matter. In the end, it’s all the same.
Since the birth of our nation, 45 million have served in uniform. A million have died in its defense. All of them, but particularly the fallen, are part of a legend that, God willing, will never end — our America. The irony is that your loved ones who we remember this weekend came out of an America that no longer seems to value commitment, self-reliance, and selfless dedication to a cause…but they did. Rather, it seems most of our countrymen today are more interested in objects of status or what America can do for them, than serving the nation and protecting its people, and the principles for which it stands…but yours did. Most of the fallen we remember tonight were only nine or ten years old on 9/11. If they remembered anything about that day it might be the images of the burning towers, or the looks of concern and confusion in your eyes as you held them close that day as much to get comfort, as give it. A decade later, and much to your surprise I bet, they astonished you when after screwing up enough courage they marched into the room one day, or at dinner one evening, and informed you they’d decided to join…to serve. You likely, and immediately, asked yourself: “Where the hell did that come from? I never raised him to go in the service…never thought of it… never wanted him to go to war…no parent would ever want that…oh my God, what if she has to go overseas?” It’s my bet you never looked at him or her again in exactly the same way, particularly if he followed it up with: and I want to be a soldier…or a Navy Doc…or a Marine.
Even as a private citizen worlds away from the Pentagon, Baghdad, or Kabul, you know our enemy — the one your loved ones voluntarily stepped forward to fight — is slave to an ideology based on an irrational hatred of who we are. 9/11 and the scenes of devastation in New York and Washington was evidence enough of that. You also know through the media or perhaps from letters from Iraq or Afghanistan of his conduct on the battlefield with the murderous beheadings, suicide attacks, and complete disregard for the innocents of his own country and religion. All of this stands as further proof of his disdain for decency and human life. This enemy has repeatedly proven himself to be brutal and homicidal, offering no quarter and with a single focus… to kill every one of us here at home, or enslave us with a sick form of extremism that serves no God or purpose that decent men and women, regardless of the God they worship, could ever grasp. In past wars since the birth of our Republic, the burden of stopping such evil fell on the shoulders of an entire generation. Today the task is taken up by only 1% of America. The 1% all of us here tonight represent, whose children fill the ranks of our Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard, and Marine Corps in barely enough numbers to defend us all. They are men and women of character who believed in this country enough to put life and limb on the line without qualification, and without thought of personal gain.
Aside from everything else you have endured the weeks, months or years since your loss, you should be proud of their decision…of their commitment… of their actions on the battlefield. Proud they stepped forward when so many others never even considered it. Proud that by this one very personal decision — to serve a cause higher than themselves regardless of the outcome to them personally— they gave meaning to two questions that have, over the centuries, defined the dedication of free and righteous men and women in the fight against wickedness: “If not me, Dad, who? If not now, Mom, when?”
If we did not have citizens willing to not only ask, but also to act on these questions, we would have lost in our struggle against the oppression of the British Empire. Slavery might never have been eradicated from our shores, and the rights of all Americans under the law might still be just a dream. The Nazis would have triumphed, the death camps never liberated and eliminated, and untold millions never saved from the gas chambers and furnaces. Communism, a cancer that killed over 100 million and sucked the human spirit from billions more during its 70 year life span, would never have been thrown onto the dust bin of history. And today, the high tide of Islamic intolerance and extremism — an empire of hate that Osama bin Laden himself proclaimed would last forever — was counted in only days after 9/11 once our country woke up and took the fight to them on their home turf. That is the kind of men and women we remember here this weekend. That is the kind of young person you raised… you shared a room with as a brother or sister…you married. Be at least as proud of their having stepped forward, as you are sad at their loss.
The comforting news to our countrymen who have decided to sit it out and watch in amazement from the sidelines at what ours did every day for them in this war against extremism, is that they were as good as any who came before them in our history. As good as what their fathers and uncles were in Vietnam, and their grandfathers were in Korea and World War II. But, like those who came before them, they were not born killers. They were good and decent young men and women who, every day, performed remarkable and most often unsung acts of bravery and selflessness to a cause they decided was bigger and more important than themselves. And you know that any one of them could have done something more self-serving with their lives as the vast majority of their age group elected to do after high school and college, but no, they chose to serve knowing full well a brutal war was in their future. They did not avoid the most basic and cherished responsibility of a citizen — the defense of country — they welcomed it. Our kids were the best of the best of their generation, and in their unselfishness put every American ahead of themselves. All are heroes for simply stepping forward, and our people owe a debt they can never fully pay. Their reward for service is the legacy they left behind: selfless valor, the Country we live in, and the freedoms so many take for granted.
I said earlier when I started my comments that I’d never had the pleasure of meeting your loved ones, but I can say without hesitation that I knew every one of them very well. I certainly was not there in the hospital when they were born. I did not share with you the joy of their birth. I also was not at the church when they were Baptized or years later when they received First Holy Communion, Confirmation, or were married. I didn’t share the anxiety the day you took off their training wheels and let them leave the driveway for their first solo ride on their two wheeler. I also wasn’t at the sports field to see them play Little League baseball or mob ball that was supposed to be soccer…or when they went on their first overnight as a Cub Scout or Brownie. I wasn’t there for their first day of school, or their first job, or their first date or prom, or their graduation from high school or college.
I knew them all well, however, because after nearly four decades of service in uniform I’ve been privileged to know thousands and thousands exactly like them. Privileged to have known them, and honored to have taken responsibility for them from you and continue your tremendous work. To help them through the homesickness they felt at boot camp and their first duty stations far from home, to stand in for you and make sure they picked up their rooms, did their laundry, advised them to continue to stay away from drugs, drink in moderation and lead good lives, to go to church, and hang out with the right crowd. I counseled them about relationships and marriage, and helped young couples through the rocks-and-shoals of every marriage’s first year. I taught them how to balance their checkbooks, and use a credit card responsibly, and trained them so they’d be less likely to kill themselves on the motorcycle they never should have bought. All of which built on the work you did, along with their sisters and brothers, aunts and uncles, neighborhoods, communities, churches, helping them achieve the greatness they already had in their hearts. I loved them all.
In some respects I knew them better than you did. I met them as grownups, never having had the opportunity of knowing them as children or adolescents. In ten thousand conversations over the years in peacetime and war, I was touched when they talked to me about their parents, and the families they loved and missed so much. About their favorite uncle who kicked them in the butt when they needed it, or a respected grandparent who lived with them. The older brother that took care of them and showed them how to use a pocket knife, or kid sister they worshiped and looked out for every day on the way home from school. About the home towns they could not wait to get back to someday. About the girl they wanted to marry — or had already — and how they wanted a family of their own, and kids that would look up to them as they did their folks.
The biggest difference in the way I knew them? I was with them in combat. I have seen them literally turn the intangibles of commitment, bravery, and selfless devotion, into real and meaningful action. In my three tours in this war as an infantry officer and commander, I never saw one hesitate, or do anything other than lean into the fire and with no apparent fear of death or injury take the fight to our merciless enemies. Day after day, the kids we came here to remember this weekend unhesitatingly climbed into trucks or helicopters, or departed the wire on patrol, and did it as if they were born to it…were indestructible…were without fear. They learned early as anyone who has truly experienced combat does, however, that fear is always with you. They also knew how random combat is, and how you have absolutely no control over whether you live or die. They also knew what can happen to you — or just as importantly to your best friend or one of your men — in an instant. They’d seen it…it’s frightening…horrible…but still they went out. The fear is at times an all-consuming constant but that is what courage is, isn’t it, pushing through the dread and completing the mission assigned regardless of how dangerous. You may or may not have ever seen that in them when they were growing up, or when you said “I do” holding their hands and gazing into their eyes… but I saw it every day. You may or may not have known him or her as one of the bravest, most courageous and committed young people our society produces…but I can attest to it.
As terrifying as combat is when it starts, when the explosions and tracers are everywhere and there is no rational reason on this earth for a man or a woman to do anything but run away in horror or find a hole to hide in and pray to God for it to stop — they didn’t. When no one would call them coward for cowering behind a wall or shivering in panic in a bunker, slave to the most basic of all instincts— survival — none of them did. When the calls for the Corpsman or medic were shouted from the mouths of young kids who know they will soon be with their God — when seconds seem like hours and it all becomes slow motion and fast forward at the same time — and the only sensible act is stop, get down, save yourself — they never did. It doesn’t matter if it’s an IED, a suicide bomber, mortar attack, fighting in an upstairs room of a house, or all of it at once…they were magnificent. And please take comfort in the fact that when they fell they were not alone. When they went they were surrounded by the finest men and women on this earth — their buddies — who desperately tried to save their lives while holding their hands and comforted them, prayed with them, listened to all the little stories about their families and their homes…until they were gone. They were not alone and when the spirit left them and God in his infinite wisdom took them to his bosom, their military family lovingly wrapped them in whatever passed for a shroud and sent them home. In this, their last journey, they were never alone. At every stop along the way, they were treated with the greatest reverence and deepest respect due a fallen hero until members of the service they proudly joined brought them to you.
Over 6,000 have died since 9/11, and we their families are sentenced to a life of dealing with their loss for the rest of our lives. Thousands more have suffered wounds since it all started, but like anyone who loses life or limb while serving others, they are not victims, as they knew what they were about, and were doing what they wanted to do. The “chattering class” wants to make them and us, their families, out to be victims, but they miss the point. Those who chose to serve willingly, and the families who supported them, will have none of that. Those with less of a sense of service to the nation will never understand it when men and women of character step forward and look danger and adversity straight in the eye, and refuse to blink or give ground even to their own deaths. The protected can’t begin to understand the price paid so they and their families can sleep safe and free at night. What they are missing, what they will also never understand, is the sense of commitment, joy, and honor of serving one’s country in uniform. Every service member does, as do we their families who support them, and fear for them, and, yes, will mourn for them the rest of our lives.
In my hundreds of trips to military hospitals around the country since 2003 and the start of the war, I’ve visited with thousands of grievously wounded American kids and their families. No matter how battered they were, no matter how many arms or legs they’d lost, their families thanked God they’d come home to them alive…but they also always very quietly asked me if it was worth it. I never tried to answer that question — I couldn’t — it wasn’t one of my boys lying in the hospital bed. I could never fathom the innermost thoughts of a parent who stood watch through the night at the bedside of someone they loved so much, who was so terribly wounded. Who was I to offer an opinion? And in my dozens of conversations with families of the fallen at Dover, or at gravesides at Arlington, or at gatherings like this, I’ve been similarly asked if it was worth the life of someone they brought into the world, raised and nurtured so lovingly, and so much looked forward to seeing grow and find wonderful husbands and wives, and give them grandchildren to spoil. Again, I had no right to reply because as hard as I tried to understand what the immensity of their loss might be, and the depth of the sorrow in their heart, I knew it was impossible. My sense then was it is inconceivable for anyone to understand that has not had his own heart pierced with such sadness. I learned I was right.
I’ve asked this same question of myself a million times these last months, usually when I unexpectedly caught a glimpse of him in a picture at the house, or when a thought of an earlier time came to mind, or in a quiet and unguarded moment when his loss washes over me in emotions I still can’t control. Since the day I had my turn standing in the door looking into the glistening eyes of a casualty officer, and the day I woke my wonderful wife and crush her heart with the news, and had to nearly pick my daughter up off the floor where she worked, I have desperately tried to convince myself that it was worth it. I have worked hard at believing his life was worth the sacrifice on the altar of America’s freedom. But it all came to me the day we buried him in the sacred ground that is Arlington, at Section 60, Gravesite #9480, that it doesn’t matter at all what I think. The only thing that matters is what he thought. That he had decided it was more important to be where he was that morning in the Sangin River Valley, Afghanistan, to be doing what he was doing with the Marines and Doc he loved so much and led so well in what was at that time the most dangerous place on earth. In his mind — and in his heart — he had decided somewhere between the day he was born and 07:19, 9 November 2010, that it was worth it to him to risk everything — even his life — in the service of his country. So in spite of the terrible emptiness that is in a corner of my heart, and the corners of the hearts of everyone who ever knew him, we are proud…so very proud. Was it worth his life? It’s not for me to say. He answered the question for me.
It has been my distinct honor to have had the opportunity to be with you here this weekend. In spite of our loss I am confident that our America, this experiment in democracy started just over two centuries ago, will forever remain the “land of the free and home of the brave” so long as we never run out of tough young Americans like ours who are willing to look beyond their own self interest and comfortable lives, and go into the darkest and most dangerous places on earth to hunt down, and kill, those who would do us harm.
God Bless America, ladies and gentlemen, may they rest in peace, may we who loved them find peace and understanding in their sacrifice, and that the America that they so loved and protected, and gave their lives for, is forever worthy of their sacrifice. Of this I pray.