WASHINGTON — It’s known as some of the saddest ground in America, a 14-acre plot of Arlington National Cemetery called Section 60 where many U.S. personnel killed in Iraq and Afghanistan are interred. On Memorial Day this year, President Donald Trump and the man who would be his chief of staff visited Grave 9480, the final resting place of Robert Kelly, a Marine killed Nov. 9, 2010, in Afghanistan.
“We grieve with you. We honor you. And we pledge to you that we will always remember Robert and what he did for all of us,” Trump said, singling out the Kelly family during his remarks to the nation that day. Turning to Robert’s father, then the secretary of homeland security, Trump added, “Thank you, John.”
The quiet tribute contrasts with Trump’s messy brawl this week with critics of his handling of condolences to Gold Star families who, like Kelly, have lost people to recent warfare. Trump brought up the loss of Kelly’s son as part of an attack on former President Barack Obama, dragging the family’s searing loss into a political fight over who has consoled grieving families better. Kelly has not commented on the controversy, but it was exactly the sort of public attention to a personal tragedy that the reserved, retired Marine general would abhor.
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White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders acknowledged Kelly was “disgusted” that the condolence calls had been politicized, but said she was not certain if the chief of staff knew Trump was going to talk about his son publicly.
Trump sparked the controversy during an interview Tuesday with Fox News Radio. Asked whether he’d called the families of Americans killed in Niger nearly two weeks before, Trump replied, “You could ask Gen. Kelly, did he get a call from Obama?”
The remark set many in the military community seething. Kelly is the most senior U.S. military officer to lose a child in Iraq or Afghanistan.
“I would be surprised if he comes in and starts allowing people to use his family as a tool,” said Charles C. Krulak, a former Marine Corps commandant who has known John Kelly since the mid-1990s.
There was a sense among some that Trump’s words were not an appropriate part of the national political dialogue.
“If there is one sacred ground in politics it should be the ultimate sacrifices made by our military,” wrote Chuck Hagel, a defense secretary under Obama and before that, a Republican U.S. senator. In an email to The Associated Press, Hagel added: “To use General Kelly and his family in this disgusting political way is sickening and beneath every shred of decency of presidential leadership.”
Trump has had a fraught relationship with grieving Gold Star families since the 2016 campaign, when he feuded with the parents of slain Army Capt. Humayun Khan, who was killed in Iraq in 2004.
Now the commander in chief, Trump ranked himself above his predecessors on such matters, insisting this week that he’s “called every family of someone who’s died,” while past presidents didn’t place such calls. But The Associated Press found relatives of soldiers who died overseas during Trump’s presidency who said they never received calls from him, and more who said they did not receive letters.
As for whether Obama called Kelly, White House officials said later that Obama did not call Kelly, but White House visitor logs show that Kelly and his wife attended the Obamas’ lunch with Gold Star families.
The public controversy has to have been painful for Kelly, whose son had been awarded the Purple Heart. The White House chief of staff is a military veteran of more than four decades who has rarely discussed his son’s death and refused to politicize it.
Robert Kelly, 29, was killed when he stepped on a land mine in Afghanistan’s remote Helmand province. His father, aware that Robert Kelly accompanied almost every patrol with his men through mine-filled battlefields, had just days before warned the family of the potential danger, according to a report in The Washington Post. When Gen. Joseph Dunford Jr. rang the elder Kelly’s doorbell at 6:10 a.m. on November 9, 2010, John Kelly knew Robert was dead, according to the report.
Four days later, the grieving father with the four-decade military career asked a Marine Corps officer not to mention Robert’s death during an event in St. Louis. There, without mentioning Robert, John Kelly delivered an impassioned speech about the disconnect between military personnel and members of American society who do not support their mission.
“Their struggle is your struggle,” Kelly said.
“We are only one of 5,500 American families who have suffered the loss of a child in this war,” Kelly wrote to The Post in an e-mail. “The death of my boy simply cannot be made to seem any more tragic than the others.”
In March 2011, Kelly accompanied his boss, Defense Secretary Bob Gates, on a visit to the Sangin district, in Helmand province — the scene of some of the most intense fighting of the war and where Robert Kelly had been killed.
As Gates’ senior military assistant, Kelly stood silently among young Marines gathering under a harsh sun as Gates applauded what they had accomplished.
“Your success, obviously, has come at an extraordinary price,” Gates said without mentioning names.
Ahead of Trump and Kelly’s visit to Robert’s grave on Memorial Day, Kelly’s voice caught when he was asked on Fox & Friends to describe his son.
“He’s the finest man I ever knew,” Kelly said. Asked to elaborate, Kelly struggled at first. “Just is. Finest guy. Wonderful guy. Wonderful husband, wonderful son, wonderful brother. Brave beyond all get out. His men still correspond with us. They still mourn him as we do.”
Associated Press writer Rhonda Shafner contributed to this report.