GEN. JOHN KELLY: ‘Most Americans don’t know what happens when we lose one of our soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines or coast guardsman in combat. So let me tell you what happens. 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 medals that they’ve earned, the emblems of their service and then puts them on another airplane linked up with the casualty officer escort that takes them home.
‘A very, very good movie to watch is ‘Taking Chance’ if you haven’t seen it, where this is done in a movie, HBO setting. Chance Phelps was killed under my command, right next to me. It’s worth seeing that if you have never seen it. So that’s the process.
‘While that’s happening, 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. Wife. 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 interment. So that’s what happens.
‘Who are these young men and women? They are the best 1 per cent this country produces. Most of you as Americans don’t know them. Many of you don’t know anyone who knows any one of them. But they are the very best that this country produces. And they volunteer to protect our country when there’s nothing in our country anymore that seems to suggest that selfless service to the nation is not only appropriate but required. But that’s all right.
‘Who writes letters to the families? Typically the company commander – in my case as a Marine, the company commander – the battalion commander, regimental commander, division commander, secretary of defense, typically the service chief, the commandant of the Marine Corps, and the president, typically writes a letter.
‘Typically the only phone calls a family receives are the most important phone calls they can imagine, and that is from their buddies. 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. And yeah, the letters count to a degree, but there’s not much that really can take the edge off what a family member is going through.
‘So some presidents have elected to call. All presidents, I believe, have elected to send letters. If you elect to call a family like this, it is about the most difficult thing you could imagine. There’s no perfect way to make that phone call. When I took this job and talked to President Trump about how to do it, my first recommendation was, he not do it. Because it’s not the phone call that parents, family members are looking forward to. It’s a ‘nice to do’ in my opinion, in any event.
‘He asked me about previous presidents. And I said I can tell you that President Obama, who was my commander-in-chief when I was on active duty, did not call my family. That was not a criticism. That was just to simply say I don’t believe President Obama called. That’s not a negative thing. I don’t believe President Bush called in all cases. I don’t believe any president, particularly when the casualty rates are very, very high, that presidents call. I believe they all write.
‘So when I gave that explanation to our president three days ago, he elected to make phone calls in the case of the four young men who we lost in Niger at the earlier part of this month. But then he said, you know, ‘How do you make these calls?’ If you’re not in the family, if you’ve never worn the uniform, if you’ve never been in combat, you can’t even imagine how to make that phone call. But he very bravely does make those calls.
‘The call in question that he made yesterday, a day before yesterday now, were to four family members. The four fallen. And remember, there’s a next of kin, designated by the individual. If he’s married, that’s typically the spouse. If he’s not married, that’s typically the parents, unless the parents are divorced and then he selects one of them. If he didn’t get along with his parents, he’ll select a sibling. But the point is the phone call is made to the next of kin only if the next of kin agrees to take the phone call. Sometimes they don’t. So a pre-call is made: ‘The President of the United States or the commandant of the Marine Corps, or someone would like to call. Will you accept the call?’ And typically they accept the call.
‘So he called four people yesterday and expressed his condolences the best way he could. He said to me, ‘What do I say?’ I said to him, ‘Sir, there’s nothing you can do to lighten the burden on these families.’
‘Let me tell you what I tell them. Let me tell you what my best friend Joe Dunford told me, as he was my casualty officer. He said, ‘Kel, he was doing exactly what he wanted to do when he was killed. He knew what he was getting into by joining that 1 percent. He knew what the possibilities were because we’re at war.’ And when he died, in the four cases we’re talking about, in Niger, and my son’s case in Afghanistan, when he died, he was surrounded by the best men on this earth, his friends. That’s what the president tried to say to the four families the other day.
‘I was stunned when I came to work yesterday morning, and broken-hearted, at what I saw a member of Congress doing. A member of Congress who listened in on a phone call from the President of the United States to a young wife. And in his way he tried to express that opinion, that he’s a brave man, a fallen hero. He knew what he was getting himself into because he enlisted. There was no reason to enlist. He enlisted. And he was where he wanted to be, exactly where he wanted to be, with exactly the people he wanted to be with when his life was taken. That was the message. That was the message that was transmitted.
‘It stuns me that a member of Congress would have listened in on that conversation. Absolutely stuns me. And I thought at least that was sacred.
‘You know, when I was a kid growing up, a lot of things were sacred in our country. Women were sacred, looked upon with great honor. That’s obviously not the case anything as we see from recent cases. Life, the dignity of life is sacred. That’s gone. Religion, that seems to be gone as well. Gold star families – I think that left in the convention over the summer. I just thought that selfless devotion that brings a man or women to die in the battlefield, I just thought that that might be sacred.
‘When I listen to this woman and what she was saying, what she was doing on TV, the only thing I could do to collect my thoughts is to go and walk among the finest men and women on this earth. You can always find them. They’re in Arlington National Cemetery. I went over there for an hour and a half, walked among the stones, some of whom I put there, because they were doing what I told them to do when they were killed.
‘I’ll end with this: In October, April of 2015, I was still on active duty. I went to the dedication of the new FBI field office in Miami. And it was dedicated to two men that were killed in a firefight in Miami with, against drug traffickers in 1986. A guy by the name of Grogan, and Duke [sic]. Grogan almost retired, 53 years old. Duke, I think less than a year on the job. Anyways, they got in a gun fight and they were killed. Three other FBI agents were there, wounded. Now retired.
‘So we go down, Jim Comey did an absolutely brilliant memorial speech to those fallen men, and to all of the men and women of the FBI who serve our country so well, and law enforcement so well. There were family members there. Some of the children that were there were only 3 or 4 years old when their dads were killed on that street in Miami-Dade. Three of the men that survived the fight were there and gave a rendition of how brave those men were and how they gave their lives.
‘And a congresswoman stood up – and in the long tradition of empty barrels making the most noise, stood up there in all of that and talked about how she was instrumental in getting the funding for that building, and how she took care of her constituents because she got the money. And she just called up president Obama and on that phone call he gave the money, the $20 million to build the building. She sat down. We were stunned, stunned that she’d done it. Even for someone that is that empty a barrel, we were stunned. But you know, none of us went to the press and criticized. None of us stood up and were appalled. We just said, ‘Okay, fine.’
‘So I still hope as you write your stories, and I appeal to America, that let’s not let this maybe last thing that’s held sacred in our society, a young man, a young woman going out and giving his or her life for our country, let’s try to somehow keep that sacred. But it eroded a great deal yesterday by the selfish behavior of a member of Congress. So I’m willing to take a question or two on this topic.
‘Let me ask you this. Let me ask you this. Is anyone here a Gold Star parent or sibling? Does anyone here know a Gold Star parent or sibling? Okay. You get the question.’
REPORTER: ‘Thank you, General Kelly. First of all, you have a great deal of respect. ‘Semper Fi’ for everything you’ve ever done. But if we could take this a bit further. Why were they in Niger? We were told they weren’t in armored vehicles and there was no air cover. So what were the specifics about this particular incident, and why we were there? Why are we there?’
GEN. KELLY: ‘Well, I’ll start by saying there is an investigation. Now, let me back up and say, the fact of the matter is, young men and women that wear our uniform are deployed around the world and there are tens of thousands near the DMZ in North Korea, in Okinawa waiting to go – in South Korea, in Okinawa – ready to go, All over the United States, training, ready to go. They’re all over Latin America. Down there they do mostly drug interdiction working with our partners, our great partners the Colombians, the Central Americans, the Mexicans. You know, there’s thousands.
‘My own son right now, back in the fight for his fifth tour in – against ISIS. There’s thousands of them in Europe acting as a deterrent. And then throughout Africa. And they’re doing the nation’s work there. And not making a lot of money, by the way, doing it. They love what they do. So why were they there? They’re there working with partners, local Africans, all across Africa in this case, Niger, working with partners, teaching them how to be better soldiers, teaching them how to respect human rights. Teaching them how to fight ISIS so that we don’t have to send our soldiers and Marines there in their thousands. That’s what they were doing there.
‘Now there’s an investigation. There’s always – unless it’s a very conventional death in a conventional war, there’s always an investigation. Of course, that operation is conducted by AFRICOM that of course works directly for the Secretary of Defense. There is a, I talked to Jim Mattis this morning, I think he made statements this afternoon. There’s an investigation ongoing.
‘An investigation doesn’t mean anything was wrong. An investigation doesn’t mean people’s heads are going to roll. The fact is, they need to find out what happened and why it happened. But at the end of the day, ladies and gentlemen, you have to understand that these young people, sometimes old guys, put on the uniform, go to where we send them to protect our country.
‘Sometimes they go in large numbers to invade Iraq, invade Afghanistan. Sometimes they’re working in small units, working with our partners in Africa, Asia, Latin America, helping them be better. But at the end of the day, they’re helping those partners be better at fighting ISIS and north Africa to protect our country so that we don’t have to send large numbers of troops.
‘Any other – someone who knows a Gold Star fallen person. John?’
REPORTER: ‘General, thank you for being here today. Thank you for your service and for your family’s sacrifice. There’s been some talk about the timetable of the release of the statement about the – I think at that point it was three soldiers who were killed in Niger. Can you walk us through the timetable of the release of that information, and what part did the fact that a beacon was pinging during that time have to do with the relase of the statement? And were you concerned that divulging the information early might jeopardize a soldier’s safety?’
GEN. KELLY: ‘First of all, we’re at the highest level of the U.S. government. The people that will answer those questions are the people at the other end of the military pyramid. I’m sure the Special Forces group is conducting – I know they’re conducting an investigation. That investigation, of course, under the auspices of AFRICOM. Ultimately it will go to the Pentagon.’
‘I’ve read the same stories you have, I actually know a lot more than I’m letting on, but I’m not going to tell you. There’s an investigation being done. But as I say, the men and women of our country that are serving all around the world – I mean, you know, what the hell is my son doing back in the fight? He’s back in the fight because, working with Iraqi soldiers who are infinitely better than they were a few years ago to take on ISIS directly so hat we don’t have to do it. Small numbers of Marines where he is, working alongside those guys. That’s why they’re out there.
‘Whether it’s Niger, Iraq or whatever. We don’t want to send tens of thousands of soldiers and Marines in particular to go fight.
‘I’ll take one more. But it’s got to be from someone who knows – all right.’
REPORTER: ‘General, when you talk about Niger, sir, what does your intelligence tell you about the Russian connection with them and what – the stories coming out now?’
GEN. KELLY: ‘I’m not in a position to know that. That’s a question for NORTHCOM or for – not NORTHCOM, for AFRICOM or D.O.D. So thanks very much.
‘As I walk off the stage, understand there’s tens of thousands of American kids, mostly, doing the nation’s bidding all around the world. They don’t have to be in uniform. You know, when I was a kid, every man in my life who was a veteran – World War II, Korea, and there was the draft. These young people today, they don’t do it for any other reason than their selfless, sense of selfless devotion to this great nation.
‘We don’t look down upon those of you that haven’t served. In fact, in a way we’re a little bit sorry, because you’ll never have experienced the wonderful joy you get in your heart when you do the kind of things our servicemen and women do. Not for any other reason than they love this country.
‘So just think of that. And I appreciate your time. thank you.’