John F. Kelly is the new Chief of Staff for President Donald Trump. He was the Secretary of Homeland Security and a retired four-star general. He comes from a close family that has suffered tragedy. One of his sons, Robert Kelly, was killed in action in 2010. He and his wife, Karen Hernest, have three children, including Robert.
Here’s what you need to know about John F. Kelly’s family and his kids.
1. John Kelly’s Dad Was a Postal Worker in Brighton
John Kelly was raised by his parents in Boston, Massachusetts, in an Irish Catholic family. WGBH News reached out to people who grew up with John Kelly. One childhood friend, William Galvin, said that John’s dad was a postal worker in Brighton. They commuted together to high school in Waltham. Brighton, he said, was a diverse community and a nice place to grow up.
He enlisted in the Marines in 1970 after his mom told him that his draft number was coming up. Even after he became a four-star general, he never forgot his family and friends from his hometown, they said.
2. John & Karen Hernest Kelly Married in October 1976
John F. Kelly and his wife, Karen Hernest, were married in 1976. They’ve been through deployments and many required military separations, but the toughest tragedy by far was the death of their son, Robert. Yet through it all, they have stayed together. John said that the day he had to tell Karen that Robert had died, it was “the most difficult thing I’ve done in my life. I walked upstairs, woke Karen to the news and broke her heart.”
Karen has had a long road as a military spouse for over four decades. She focuses on helping military families who lost loved ones.
Karen created a scholarship to honor her son, Robert, after he died. The scholarship is called the First Lieutenant Robert Kelly Memorial Scholarship. She told the San Diego Union Tribune:
I decided on the day I found out … that I would do something to make my son proud. Because I was very proud of him. And I would not allow his death to … I just wanted to do something good. Because out of everything, out of the pain that we feel, something good has to come out of it… Some people choose to wallow in self-pity. I chose to do something positive, because I think my son would be very disappointed in me if I didn’t.”
3. John & Karen Have Three Children — Both Their Sons Served in the Marines
John and Karen have three children: Robert Kelly, John Kelly Jr., and Kathleen Kelly. Robert was tragically killed in action in 2010.
Kathleen Kelly and her father are close. The Washington Post reported that when Robert was in Sangin, John and Kathleen made trips almost every day to visit Marines from Robert’s unit who were at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda. Robert’s wife, Heather, also frequently visited the men. One of the men was hurt badly, having lost his right leg, and the family did their best to comfort him and the others.
John Jr. is a Marine Corps Major who joined after he graduated from Florida State University in 2003. He joined the military just two years before his younger brother, Robert Kelly. When Robert was fighting house to house in Fallujah, John prepared his wife for how bad things could get. Later, when Robert was commissioned as second lieutenant, John administered the oath because their dad was deployed in Iraq.
4. John’s Son, Robert Kelly, Was Killed in Action in 2010 After Stepping on a Land Mine in Afghanistan
Tragedy struck the Kelly family on November 9, 2010 when 29-year-old Robert Kelly was killed in action. He stepped on a landmine while leading a platoon of Marines in Afghanistan. He died instantly.
John Kelly said of his son’s death: “He went quickly and thank God he did not suffer. In combat that is as good as it gets.”
He was on his third combat tour, his first as a Marine Corps infantry officer. He was with the Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, when he died. Two months before he died, he and his platoon were deployed in Sangin fighting against the Taliban, taking part in some of the most intense fighting of the war, The Washington Post reported.
Robert had enlisted in the Marines just a few days after he graduated from Florida State University. When he died, he had been married for three years to Heather Landry Kelly and they were preparing to move to Oceanside, California.
John Kelly told the Washington Post that the day he found out Robert died, it was completely debilitating.
…My mind went through in detail every memory and image I had of Robert from the delivery room to the voice mail he’d left a few days before he died. . . . It was as graphic as if I was watching a video. . . . It really did seem like hours but was little more than a second or so.”
Robert’s death left John Kelly as the highest-ranking military officer to lose a child in Iraq or Afghanistan. When asked if losing a child was worth it, Kelly told Cosmopolitan:
I always go back with this: It doesn’t matter. That’s not our question to ask as parents. That young person thought it was worth it, and that’s the only opinion that counts.”
5. John’s Daughter Kathleen Kelly Worked for the American Red Cross at Walter Reed
Because the family moved around a lot, Kathleen attended three high schools growing up, finally graduating while they were stationed at Camp Pendleton, California, her mom Karen said.
At a speech for the fifth annual Brain at War Conference, Karen said in 2012 that Kathleen spent her time at Camp Pendleton helping others, which led to her desire to work for the American Red Cross:
My daughter’s two years at Camp Pendleton were spent helping with our visits to the hospital to see our wounded, putting together care packages and meeting medivacs. It changed the course of her life. Until then she had wanted to become a middle school history teacher. She now works for the Red Cross at Walter Reed National Medical Center, Bethesda.”