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Chief of Staff John Kelly shares raw memories of finding out about son’s combat death

White House Chief of Staff John Kelly (Jim Mattis/Flickr)
October 20, 2017

Chief of Staff John Kelly took to the White House press briefing room this week in a rare, emotional appearance to talk about phone calls to Gold Star families.

Kelly’s son, 2nd Lt. Robert Kelly, was killed during battle in Sangin, Afghanistan, in 2010. While he has long kept stories about his son’s death private, John Kelly opened up on Thursday about what transpired, and shared details of finding out about his son’s death.

“Their buddies wrap them up in whatever passes as a shroud,” Kelly told reporters, who were hanging on his every word. “They’re packed in ice, typically at the air head, 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 medals that they’ve earned, the emblems of their service.”

In describing the process of notification of next of kin, Kelly then explained that a casualty officer “proceeds to break the heart of a family member.”

Kelly said he told President Donald Trump that presidents don’t usually directly call the family members of fallen service members, but if they wish to do so, a pre-call is made to ensure that the family member will be available – and want – to take the call.

Some presidents call or send condolence letters, and some don’t, Kelly said, adding that former President Barack Obama had not called his family.

Kelly pointed out that his son’s friends in Afghanistan called the family in the hours following Robert Kelly’s death, and that “those are the only phone calls that really mattered.”

The conversation about the President Trump’s relationships with Gold Star families has taken center stage across the country, as one phone call with a recent Gold Star widow is being politicized by a Democratic congresswoman.

Most recently, four U.S. service members – Sgt. La David Johnson, Staff Sgt. Bryan Black, Staff Sgt. Jeremiah Johnson and Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright – were killed on Oct. 4 in Niger, West Africa, when their 12-person team was ambushed. Trump called Sgt. La David Johnson’s widow, Myeshia Johnson, and that is the phone call that has been widely in the news. Democratic Rep. Frederica Wilson on Tuesday told a local news affiliate about what Trump said during the phone call, saying it was “insensitive.”

Trump “very bravely” made the hard phone calls, Kelly said this week, pointing out that Trump had called the families of all four fallen service members.

Kelly said the President expressed his condolences “in the best way he could,” and that Trump had asked Kelly what he should say.

“I said to him, sir there’s nothing you can do to lighten the burden on these families,” Kelly explained.

“[…] Let me tell you what my best friend, Joe Dunford [now Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] told me. He said, Kel: He [Robert Kelly] was doing exactly what he wanted to do when he was killed. He knew what he was getting into … by joining that one percent,” Kelly said. “When he died, he was surrounded by the best men on earth – his friends.”

“That’s what the president tried to say to four families the other day,” Kelly said.

He was “stunned” by what Wilson was doing in the press, Kelly said, and later said it was “selfish behavior.”

“I still hope, as you write your stories […] let’s not let this maybe last things that’s held sacred in our society – a young man, young woman going out and giving his or her life for our country – let’s try to somehow keep that sacred,” he added.

You can listen to Kelly’s full remarks here: