This article from the May issue of The American Legion Magazine is an excerpt of a speech Lt. Gen. John Kelly gave to the Semper Fi Society of St. Louis on Nov. 13, 2010. The full text of the speech is available here.
Our country today is in a life-and-death struggle against an evil enemy, but America as a whole is certainly not at war. Not as a country. Not as a people. Today, only a tiny fraction of American families – less than 1 percent – shoulder the burden of fear and sacrifice, and they shoulder it for the entire nation. Their sons and daughters who serve are men and women of character who continue to believe in this country enough to put life and limb on the line without qualification, and without thought of personal gain, so the sons and daughters of the other 99 percent don’t have to. No big deal, though. Marines have always been first to fight, paying in full the bill that comes with being free for everyone else.
The comforting news for every American is that our men and women in uniform are as good today as any in our history. As good as their heroic, underappreciated and largely abandoned fathers and uncles were in Vietnam, and their grandfathers were in Korea and World War II, they have the same steel in their backs and have made their own mark, etching forever places like Ramadi, Fallujah and Baghdad in Iraq, and Helmand and Sangin, Afghanistan, that are now part of U.S. military legend and stand just as proudly alongside Iwo Jima, Normandy, Inchon, Hue City, Khe Sanh and A Shau Valley, Vietnam.
While some might think we have produced yet another generation of materialistic and self-absorbed young people, those who serve today have broken the mold and stepped out as real men, and real women, who are already making their own way in life while protecting ours. They have learned, at the same time they have served and fought for us, that the real strength of a platoon, a battalion or a country is not based on worshipping at the altar of diversity or separateness. On the contrary, they know that our immigrant and castoff ancestors, many of whom came here in chains, forged a nation that was a melting pot stitched together by a shared sense of history, values, customs, hopes and dreams, all of which unified an earlier America into a whole, as opposed to an unruly gaggle of hyphenated names or multicultural individuals.
Our servicemen and women also come to understand that it’s not about color, but about character. That it’s not about where in the world you came from, but all about why you came. That it’s not about the God you worship, but that you will respect and even fight for the right of your neighbor to venerate any God he or she damn well pleases. That it’s not about individual achievement, but all about achieving together as a people for the common good. That there is an exceptionalism about America, and that we should cherish who we are and why we are extraordinary. Those of us who serve or have served in America’s armed forces have a profound understanding of these truths. Unfortunately, many in our great country today seldom fully appreciate them, or even hear of them beyond rhetoric every couple of years.
And what are they like in combat in this war? Like Marines have been throughout our history. These young people demonstrate their commitment to us not in words, but in action. In my three tours in combat as an infantry officer and commanding general, I never saw one of them hesitate, or do anything other than lean into the fire and, with no apparent fear of death or injury, take the fight to our enemies.
As anyone who has ever experienced combat knows, when it starts, when the explosions and tracers are everywhere, and the calls for the corpsman or medic are screamed from the throats of men who know they are dying – when seconds seem like hours and it all becomes slow motion and fast forward at the same time, and the only rational act is to stop, get down, save yourself – they don’t. When no one would call them a coward for cowering behind a wall or in a hole, slave to the most basic of all human instincts – survival – none of them do. It doesn’t matter if it’s an IED, a suicide bomber, mortar attack, sniper, fighting in the upstairs room of a house, or all of it at once – they talk, swagger and, most importantly, fight today in the same way America’s Marines have since Tun Tavern. They also know whose shoulders they stand on, and they will never shame any veteran of any service, living or dead.
We can also take comfort in the fact that these young Americans are not born killers but are good and decent young men and women who, for going on 10 years, have performed remarkable acts of bravery and selflessness to a cause they have decided is bigger and more important than themselves. Only a few months ago, they were delivering your paper, stocking shelves in the local grocery store, serving Mass on Sunday, or playing hockey on local ice.
Like my own two sons – who are Marines and have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan – they are also the same kids that drove their cars too fast for your liking, and played the god-awful music of their generation too loud, but have no doubt they are the finest of their generation. Like those who went before them in uniform, we owe them everything. We owe them our safety. We owe them our prosperity. We owe them our freedom. We owe them our lives.Any one of them could have done something more self-serving with their lives, as the vast majority of their age group elected to do after high school and college. But no, they chose to serve, knowing full well a brutal war was in their future. They did not avoid the most basic and cherished responsibility of a citizen: the defense of country. They welcomed it. They are the very best this country produces, and have put every one of us ahead of themselves. All are heroes for simply stepping forward, and we as a people owe a debt we can never fully pay. Just yesterday, two were lost, and a knock on the door late last night brought their families to their knees in a grief that will never go away. Thousands more have suffered terrible wounds since it all started, but like anyone who loses life or limb while serving others – including our firefighters and law-enforcement personnel, who on 9/11 were the first casualties of this war – they are not victims; they knew what they were about, and were doing what they wanted to do. Indeed, they were in exactly the place they wanted to be: among the best men and women America produces. The chattering class and all those who doubt America’s intentions and resolve, endeavor to make them and their families out to be victims, but they are wrong. We who have served, and are serving, refuse their sympathy.I have a story I wish to relate about the kind of people they are, about the steel in their backs, and the kind of dedication they bring to our country. When I was the commander of all U.S. and Iraqi forces, on April 22, 2008, two Marine infantry battalions, 1/9 “The Walking Dead,” and 2/8, were switching out in Ramadi. One battalion was in the closing days of its deployment, the other just starting its seven-month combat tour.Two Marines, Cpl. Jonathan Yale and Lance Cpl. Jordan Haerter, 22 and 20 respectively, one from each battalion, were assuming the watch at the entrance gate of an outpost that contained a makeshift barracks housing 50 Marines. The same ramshackle building was also home to 100 Iraqi police, our allies in the fight against terrorists in Ramadi – known at the time as the most dangerous city on earth, and owned by al-Qaeda. Yale was a dirt-poor mixed-race kid from Virginia, with a wife, a mother and a sister, who all lived with him and he supported. He did this on a yearly salary of less than $23,000. Haerter, on the other hand, was a middle-class white kid from Long Island. They were from two completely different worlds. Had they not joined the Marines, they would never have met each other, or understood that multiple Americas exist simultaneously, depending on one’s race, ethnicity, religious affiliation, education level, economic status, or where you might have been born. But they were Marines, combat Marines, forged in the same crucible, and because of this bond they were brothers as close – or closer – than if they were born of the same woman.The mission orders they received from their sergeant squad leader, I’m sure, went something like this: “OK, take charge of this post and let no unauthorized personnel or vehicles pass. You clear?” I’m also sure Yale and Haerter rolled their eyes and said, in unison, something like, “Yes, sergeant,” with just enough attitude that made the point, without saying the words, “No kidding, sweetheart. We know what we’re doing.” They then relieved two other Marines on watch and took up their post at the entry-control point of Joint Security Station Nasser, in the Sophia section of Ramadi, al Anbar, Iraq.A few minutes later, a large blue truck turned down the alleyway – perhaps 60 to 70 yards in length – and sped its way through the serpentine concrete Jersey walls. The truck stopped just short of where the two were posted and detonated, killing them both. Twenty-four brick masonry houses were damaged or destroyed. A mosque 100 yards away collapsed. The truck’s engine came to rest 200 yards away, knocking down most of a house down before it stopped. Our explosive experts reckoned the blast was caused by 2,000 pounds of explosive. Because these two young infantrymen didn’t have it in their DNA to run from danger, they saved 150 of their Iraqi and American brothers in arms.When I read the situation report a few hours after it happened, I called the regimental commander for details. Something about this struck me as different. We expect Marines, regardless of rank or MOS, to stand their ground and do their duty, and even die in the process, if that is what the mission takes. But this just seemed different. The regimental commander had just returned from the site, and he agreed, but reported that there were no American witnesses to the event – just Iraqi police. If there was any chance of finding out what actually happened, and then to decorate the two Marines to acknowledge their bravery, I’d have to do it, because a combat award requires two eyewitnesses, and we figured the bureaucrats back in Washington would never buy Iraqi statements. If it had any chance at all, it had to come under the signature of a general officer.I traveled to Ramadi the next day and spoke individually to a half-dozen Iraqi police, all of whom told the same story. They all said, “We knew immediately what was going on as soon as the two Marines began firing.” The Iraqi police related that some of them also fired, and then, to a man, ran for safety just prior to the explosion. All survived. Many were injured, some seriously. One of the Iraqis elaborated, and with tears welling up, said, “They’d run like any normal man would to save his life.”What he didn’t know until then, and what he learned that very instant, was that Marines are not normal. Choking past the emotion, he said, “Sir, in the name of God, no sane man would have stood there and done what they did. They saved us all.”What we didn’t know at the time, and only learned after I submitted both Yale and Haerter for posthumous Navy Crosses, was that one of our security cameras recorded some of the attack. It happened exactly as the Iraqis described it. It took exactly six seconds from when the truck entered the alley until it detonated. You can watch the last six seconds of their young lives.I suppose it took about a second for the two Marines to separately come to the same conclusion about what was going on once the truck came into their view at the far end of the alley. No time to talk it over, or call the sergeant to ask what they should do. Only enough time to take half an instant and think about what the sergeant told them to do only a few minutes before: “Let no unauthorized personnel or vehicles pass.” It took maybe another two seconds for them to present their weapons, take aim, and open up. By this time, the truck was halfway through the barriers and gaining speed. Here the recording shows a number of Iraqi police, some of whom had fired their AKs, now scattering like the normal and rational men they were, some running right past the Marines, who had three seconds left to live.For about two seconds more, the recording shows the Marines firing their weapons nonstop. The truck’s windshield explodes into shards of glass as their rounds take it apart and tear into the body of the son of a bitch trying to get past them to kill their brothers – American and Iraqi – bedded down in the barracks, totally unaware that their lives at that moment depended entirely on two Marines standing their ground.Yale and Haerter never hesitated. By all reports and by the recording, they never stepped back. They never even shifted their weight. With their feet spread shoulder-width apart, they leaned into the danger, firing as fast as they could. They had only one second left to live, and I think they knew.The truck explodes. The camera goes blank. Two young men go to their God. Six seconds. Not enough time to think about their families, their country, their flag, or about their lives or their deaths, but more than enough time for two very brave young men to do their duty. Those are the kind of people who are on watch all over the world tonight for you, and as amazing as this selfless act of sacrifice may seem, it is the norm. In all the years I have been both enlisted and an officer of Marines, I have praised them and have chewed them out. I have promoted them and unceremoniously disciplined them. I have hung decorations on them and court-martialed them. I have visited them mangled and broken in military hospitals around the country, in lonely defensive positions across Iraq, and in brigs. I have known thousands of them over nearly 40 years, and I can tell you without hesitation or qualification that I never met one who would have run from his post that morning – who would have done anything other than to have stood there and died.I have the name of the most recent hero, killed in Afghanistan a few hours ago, but I cannot share with you his name because a Marine officer and Navy chaplain have not yet executed their honored duty of notifying the next of kin. That family, right now, somewhere in America, is in the final minutes of blissful ignorance before their entire lives change forever. I know God will help them bear this inconceivable burden – a burden I am told by those who know that never goes away or even gets lighter – and help them find comfort in the fact that their son was doing exactly what he wanted to do, was doing it with the finest men on this earth, and for a cause that meant more to him than his life. The reality, however, is that it doesn’t matter if we are comforted, or if we accept it or not. It only matters that he did.We Marines believe that God gave America the greatest gift he could bestow on man while he lives on this earth: freedom. We also believe he gave us another gift nearly as precious – our soldiers, sailors, airmen, Coast Guardsmen and Marines – to safeguard that gift and guarantee no force on this earth can ever steal it away. Rest assured that our America, this experiment in democracy begun over two centuries ago, will forever remain the land of the free and home of the brave so long as we never run out of tough young Americans who are willing to look beyond their own self-interest and comfortable lives, and go into the darkest and most dangerous places on earth to hunt down and kill those who would do us harm. God bless America, and semper fidelis. Lt. Gen. John Kelly is senior military assistant to Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Kelly delivered this speech to the Semper Fi Society of St. Louis on Nov. 13, 2010, four days after his son, Marine 1st Lt. Robert Kelly, was killed in action in Afghanistan.