WASHINGTON — With tears in his eyes and a quiver of his lip, Gen. John F. Kelly said, “I never quite understood the definition of bravery until watching young men and women do things that were absolutely crazy to do because they were well trained and they had the capability to do their jobs.”
He was referring to the most memorable aspect of his time in the Corps — leading Marines in Iraq and throughout his career.
Kelly, who relinquished command of United States Southern Command Jan. 14, 2016, will soon retire after more than 45 years of service.
The general, a Boston, Massachusetts native, was an adventurous person from a young age. He hitch-hiked across the country a couple of times and rode a freight train from Seattle to Chicago in an empty boxcar by his 16th birthday.
I also went into the Merchant Marines for a year and my first time overseas was taking 10,000 tons of beer to Vietnam, he said.
Soon after, a new adventure was calling him.
“In the America I grew up in, every male was a veteran; my dad, my uncles and all the people on the block,” said Kelly. “So, with that kind of background and the draft, you assumed you were going to go into the service when your time came.”
In my neighborhood you joined the Marines, he said.
He enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1970 and served as an infantryman with the 2nd Marine Division, at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, until his discharge as a sergeant in 1972.
“I wasn’t committed to a career, but I wanted to go to college and come back and be an officer,” said Kelly.
After graduating from the University of Massachusetts Boston in 1976, Kelly attended Officer Candidate School at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia and was commissioned as a second lieutenant.
He returned to 2nd Marine Division, where he served as a platoon commander, company executive officer, assistant operations officer and then an infantry company commander. Kelly learned what he truly loved about the Corps during this time of leading troops as an officer at the lowest level.
“One of the worst things about getting promoted as an officer is that you get further and further away from day-to-day contact with young Marines,” Kelly said.
Kelly learned the best thing you could do as a leader is look out for your Marines and let them know someone has got their back. He modeled his entire career around this concept, he said.
“My whole last tour in Iraq, I was always on the road,” Kelly said. “To show up to a [forward operating base] in the middle of nowhere or at a convoy that’s broken down and talk to [Marines] as they’re changing the tire is the only way to do business.”
Although promotions pulled him further away from his Marines, his extensive career has taken him all over the Corps and the world, from leading Marines from coast to coast and serving overseas during the Persian Gulf War, Operation Desert Storm and the Iraq War.
Kelly has given more than half of his life to the Corps. Although, he will be leaving his beloved Corps, he will continue to serve his nation and his community, he said.
“One day, you’ll get out of the Marine Corps, you’ll put your uniform up, but you’ll never not be a Marine,” said Kelly.
By Sgt. Eric Keenan