John Kelly’s Military Career: 5 Fast Facts You Need to Know

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Getty John F. Kelly in Mexico in July 2017.

President Donald Trump’s White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly had a remarkable career in the military before serving the current administration. The 67-year-old Kelly spent 45 years in military service before his retirement in 2016. He spent the first six months of the Trump administration as the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.

“I am honored to be asked to serve as the Chief of Staff to the President of the United States,” Kelly said in a statement. “To the tremendous men and women of DHS, I thank you for the opportunity to serve as your Secretary. When I left the Marines, I never thought I would find as committed, as professional, as patriotic a group of individuals. I was wrong. You accomplish great things everyday defending our nation and I know your exceptional work will continue.”

Kelly was born in Boston and attended the University of Massachusetts, Boston. He also earned a Maters of Science in National Security Studies from the Georgetown School of Foreign Service. He has been married to Karen Hernest Kelly since 1976 and has two children, John Kelly Jr, and Kathleen Kelly. His son Robert Michael Kelly died while serving in Afghanistan in 2010, making Kelly the most senior member of the military to lose a son or daughter during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Here’s what you need to know about Kelly’s military career.


1. Kelly Enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1970 Before He Could be Drafted

John Kelly Calls Out Dem Senator: "This is BS What You're Doing"2017-06-06T14:48:16.000Z

Before he could be drafted, Kelly enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps in 1970, notes his Department of Defense bio.

“I grew up in Boston in a very, very, very Marine town,” Kelly told NPR in October 2016, a month before his retirement. “So back in my neighborhood in Boston, a working-class neighborhood, when you got your draft notice, you went down, and you took your draft physical. And then, if you passed it, you joined the Marine Corps.”

Kelly was not sent to Vietnam. Instead, he spent the first two years of his military career at Camp Legeune, North Carolina. He was discharged as a sergeant in 1972 and returned to Boston to study at the University of Massachusetts. After graduating in 1976, he was commissioned to the 2nd Marine Division and spent the rest of the 1970s on sea duty in Mayport, Florida. He served aboard the USS Forrestal and the USS Independence.

In 1980, he was transferred to Forth Benning, Georgia, where he attended the U.S. Army’s Infantry Officer Advanced Course. In 1981, he was assigned to the Marine Corps headquarters in Washington C.C., where he served until 1986. A year later, he was promoted to Major and transferred to Quantico.


2. Kelly Served in the Persian Gulf War During Operation Desert Storm

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Kelly served in the Marines in the Persian Gulf War, during the Operation Desert Storm combat phase in January and February 1991.

“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,” Kelly told Marines.mil in January 2016 after his retirement.

Kelly’s awards include the Defense Superior Service Medal, the Legion of Merit, Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Kuwait Liberation Medal and Global War on Terrorism Service Medal.


3. He Led Task Force Tripoli During the Early Days of the Iraq War

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In 2002, Kelly was promoted to Brigadier General. After the Iraq War began, he was deployed to Iraq. He took command of Task Force Tripoli in April 2003 after the fall of Baghdad. The task force’s mission was to secure the city of Tikrit.

As Col. Nicholas E. Reynolds wrote in 2007, Kelly ended up working with sheikhs once the task force arrived in Tikrit. He was caution about it at first, but eventually decided that they would be best at putting together an interim government there.

“He repeated a number of basic themes: the Marines would take responsibility for the security of the area; the locals would help the Marines hunt down any remaining foreign fighters or Saddam loyalists; and, finally, the sheikhs would bear much of the responsibility for restoring power, water, food, and medical services,” Reynolds wrote in Basrah, Baghdad, and Beyond: U.S. Marines in Iraq, 2003.

This was difficult to achieve, but Task Force Tripoli left Tikrit stable before they were relieved by another division and continued fighting into the beginning of May 2003.

After two years in Iraq, Kelly was called back to the U.S. He was then deployed to Iraq again in 2008 for a year.

After retirement, he told Marines.mil that the worst thing about being promoted was being taken away from day-to-day contact with young Marines.

“My whole last tour in Iraq, I was always on the road,” Kelly said in January 2016. “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.”


4. Kelly Led U.S. Southern Command, Where He Oversaw Guantanamo Bay

Keynote Address: General John F. Kelly2014 HR Summit – Keynote Address: General John F. Kelly, United States Marine Corps Commander, U.S. Southern Command2014-12-17T16:17:24.000Z

Kelly’s last role in the military before retirement was commander of U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM). Established in 1963, it is one of the Unified Combatant Commands and is responsible for operations in Central and South America. It is based in Doral, Florida. As Military Times notes, it was his first and only four-star assignment.

The job of leading SOUTHCOM also included overseeing Guantanamo Bay and Kelly didn’t agree with President Barack Obama’s determination to close it.

“Every one has real, no-kidding intelligence on them that brought them there,” Kelly told Military Times of the detainees at Gitmo. “They were doing something negative, something bad, something violent, and they were taken from the battlefield. There are a lot of people that will dispute that, but I have dossiers on all of them, built and maintained by the intelligence community, both military and civilian. There are no innocent men down there.”

Kelly also told Military Times in November that he wants to see strong border control and doesn’t think just a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border will work.

“I think you have to have — we have a right to protect our borders, whether they’re seaward, coastlines, or land borders,” Kelly told Military Times. “We have a right to do that. Every country has a right to do that. Obviously, some form of control whether it’s a wall or a fence. But if the countries where these migrants come from have reasonable levels of violence and reasonable levels of economic opportunity, then the people won’t leave to come here.”


5. Kelly Warned in 2014 That the War on Terror Could Last ‘Generations’

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GettyJohn Kelly in 2013.

As The Washington Times notes, Kelly once warned during a 2014 speech that the War on Terror isn’t likely to end soon.

“If you think this war against our way of life is over because some of the self-appointed opinion-makers and chattering class grow ‘war weary,’ because they want to be out of Iraq or Afghanistan, you are mistaken,” Kelly said in 2014. “This enemy is dedicated to our destruction. He will fight us for generations, and the conflict will move through various phases as it has since 9/11.”

Kelly also told Defense One in January 2016 that he wasn’t happy with the way Obama and his administration were describing military actions.

“If there’s a country and it’s dangerous and we deploy a U.S. military man or woman, if there’s only one there, and they never leave the capital, that is ‘boots on the ground,’” Kelly told the site in January 2016. “We do a disservice to the sacrifice of these people, particularly if they are killed, when we say there’s no boots on the ground.”

Although he was critical of Obama, Kelly said his decision to lead SOUTHCOM was personal and not meant to “sideline” him. During his tenure, he even pushed for more funds for SOUTHCOM, telling Defense One that “near collapse of societies in the hemisphere with the associated drug and [undocumented immigrant] flow” were threats to the U.S.