Thank You, General Kelly

10/21/2017 10:50 am ET Updated Oct 22, 2017

Thank you, General Kelly, for your heroic service to our great country. All veterans deserve our thanks and honor, like you, like my father, and like my brother. But you particularly stand out as a great military leader and a war hero. I don’t have to tell you that your son was a hero too. I can hardly imagine the loss you family suffered. As a father, I can only offer my condolences.

Despite your service and your sacrifices, you are now embroiled in a controversy over Presidential condolences to Gold Star families. How did this happen?

General John F. Kelly in 2014
US Defense Department Photo. Public Domain. Source: http://www.defense.gov/dodcmsshare/newsphoto/2014-03/hires_140313-D-NI589-035c.jpg
General John F. Kelly in 2014

After years of service to our country, you were more than entitled to enjoy retirement. Instead, you chose to take on the thankless job of being Chief of Staff for a troubled Presidential administration. Everything we read suggests that you have succeeded in bringing a much greater degree of order to the White House, and have helped drive out individuals who do not share the great ideals of our country. Once again, I can only offer my wholehearted thanks.

A military honor guard perform a seven-member funeral detail at a cemetery in Massachusetts in 2012.
(U.S. Air Force photo by Linda LaBonte Britt. Public domain. Source: http://www.hanscom.af.mil/News/Photos/igphoto/2000034073/mediaid/454925/
A military honor guard perform a seven-member funeral detail at a cemetery in Massachusetts in 2012.

After criticism for doing little to acknowledge the deaths of US soldiers, the President decided to make some calls of condolence, as Presidents Obama had done, as President Bush had done, and as other Presidents had done in the past. You briefed President Trump on what to say in such a context. You advised the President to use words very similar to those that a friend used to console you:

He was doing exactly what he wanted to do when he was killed. He knew what he was getting into by joining that 1 percent. He knew what the possibilities were because we’re at war. And when he died, in the four cases we’re talking about... — when he died, he was surrounded by the best men on this Earth: his friends.

Those are moving and appropriate words, General Kelly. They capture the same patriotic spirit as those of the great Roman poet Horace, who said, “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.”

Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va., May 17, 2013
Coast Guard. Public domain. Photo by: Petty Officer 2nd Class Patrick Kelley SOURCE: https://www.dvidshub.net/image/1130902
Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va., May 17, 2013

The President listened to what you said, seemed to understand. But then he called Myeshia Johnson, the grieving widow of Sergeant La David Johnson. He hadn’t even bothered to learn the man’s name, referring to him as “your guy.” (He later referred to Sergeant Johnson’s widow as “the woman,” and “the wife,” apparently forgetting her name as well.) And the thoughtful, respectful comments you had dictated to him transformed into a flippant remark that, well, her husband “knew what he signed up for.”

Representative Frederica S. Wilson was present for the conversation because she was consoling the widow, and she reported to the press what the President had said and the disrespectful tone it had for those present. The President responded, as he has responded to all of his accusers, by calling them liars.

Rep. Wilson’s account was later confirmed by Myeshia Johnson herself.

You were understandably frustrated about the resulting controversy. Perhaps you started to blame yourself for not coaching the President more carefully. But you knew that you had done everything you could. You started to wonder whether anything you could do could save this administration from repeatedly embarrassing itself. And of course you thought about how much Myeshia Johnson is suffering, and this opened old wounds of your own. You probably vented to someone. This being the Trump White House—filled with misinformation—someone “helpfully” told you that Rep. Wilson had used the occasion of the dedication of an FBI building to fallen agents as an occasion for self-aggrandizement.

Rep. Frederica Wilson joins Marines at the 19th Annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Unity Scholarship Breakfast Jan. 16, 2012 in M
Department of Defense. Public Domain. Photo By: Sgt. Scott Schmidt. SOURCE: http://www.mcrc.marines.mil/Photos/igphoto/176453/
Rep. Frederica Wilson joins Marines at the 19th Annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Unity Scholarship Breakfast Jan. 16, 2012 in Miami, Fla.

In response to the controversy, you gave a moving speech in which you finally opened up about what it is like to lose a loved one in war, and what it is like to command soldiers, many of whom you know will not come back alive. But you also repeated the ”fake news” you had heard about Rep. Wilson. Within a day, video showed that she had not done anything that she had been accused of. You are well regarded for helping to slow down the flow of fake news to the President, but there is so much of it in the White House that you fell victim to some of it yourself.

Khizr and Ghazala Khan at the Democratic National Convention in 2016.
Voice of America. Public domain. SOURCE: https://www.voanews.com/a/muslim-immigrant-slams-trump-at-dnc/3439892.html
Khizr and Ghazala Khan at the Democratic National Convention in 2016.

You did also say many genuinely inspiring things in your speech, but they left me with questions. You lamented how much values have deteriorated since you were a child. It used to be that “women were sacred”—were you referring to the recording of President Trump bragging about multiple sexual assaults? “Religion, that seems to be gone as well”—did you have in mind the conservative Christians who voted for a man who openly mocked a disabled reporter and has made sexual remarks about his own daughters? “Gold Star families, I think that left in the convention over the summer”—were you talking about how Trump questioned the motives and ethics of Gold Star parents Khizr and Ghazala Khan? You said that people used to regard as sacred “the selfless devotion that brings a man or woman to die on the battlefield”—were you referring to how Trump mocked a fellow war-hero, Senator John McCain?

President Trump with then Secretary of Homeland Security David Kelly on 17 May 2017.
Department of Defense. Public domain. Photo by: Petty Officer 2nd Class Patrick Kelley. SOURCE: https://www.defense.gov/Photos/Photo-Gallery/igphoto/2001748892/
President Trump with then Secretary of Homeland Security David Kelly on 17 May 2017.

Should you continue to serve in the administration of such a man? I cannot answer that for you. That is between you, your loved ones, your conscience, and God. I do know that you are one of the few voices of reason in an administration still largely run by zealots (like Stephen Miller) and amateurs (like the Kushners). However, no matter how good of a job you do, your President and his administration will continue to embarrass you. When this happens, please remember that the ones who are at fault are never the ones whom Trump lashes out at.

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