White House Chief of Staff John Kelly gave a somber description of what happens when a U.S. servicemember is killed in action.
Kelly is a retired Marine Corps general who lost his son, Marine Corps 1st Lt. Robert Kelly, in Sangin, Afghanistan in 2010.
During a briefing with reporters on Thursday, Kelly explained the process of returning a U.S. servicemember back home. His comments come after President Donald Trump was criticized for not reaching out to the families of four U.S. soldiers killed during a military operation in Niger on October 4.
Army Sgt. La David Johnson, 25, of Miami Gardens, Florida, Staff Sgt. Bryan C. Black, 35, of Puyallup, Washington, Staff Sgt. Jeremiah W. Johnson, 39, of Springboro, Ohio, and Staff Sgt. Dustin M. Wright, 29, of Lyons, Georgia, were killed.
Trump reached out to Johnson’s wife Myeshia this week. Florida Rep. Frederica Wilson said she listened to part of the conversation and said the president told Myeshia that her husband “knew what he was signing up for.”
At the briefing, Kelly started by saying, “Most Americans don’t know what happens when we lose one of soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, our Coast Guardsmen 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 a casualty officer escort that takes them home,” Kelly said.
Kelly then mentioned a movie by director Ross Katz called “Taking Chance” that came out in 2009 starring Kevin Bacon about Chance Phelps, a U.S. Marine killed in Iraq in 2004.
“A very, very good movie to watch, if you haven’t ever seen it, is ‘Taking Chance,’ where this is done in a movie — HBO setting. Chance Phelps was killed under my command right next to me, and it’s worth seeing that if you’ve never seen it,” Kelly said.
“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 a mom and dad will answer, a wife. And 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 internment. So that’s what happens,” he explained.
Kelly enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1970. He commanded troops in Iraq and was commander of U.S. Southern Command. He was appointed director of Homeland Security by Trump before being named White House chief of staff.
“Who are these young men and women? They are the best 1 percent 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 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,” he said.
Then he explained the process a president takes to reach out to the families of fallen soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen during war.
“Who writes letters to the families? Typically, the company commander — in my case, as a Marine — the company commander, battalion commander, regimental commander, division commander, Secretary of Defense, typically the service chief, commandant of the Marine Corps, and the president typically writes a letter,” he said.
“Typically, the only phone calls a family receives are the most important phone calls they could imagine, and that is from their buddies,” he said. “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 mattered.”
“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,” Kelly said.
Kelly explained that not all presidents pick up the phone when a U.S. servicemember is killed in action but they usually write a letter to the family.
“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,” he said.
Kelly also explained the advice he gave to Trump before he made the phone call to Johnson’s widow.
“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,” he said. “It’s nice to do, in my opinion, in any event.”