Kelly fights back tears discussing soldier’s death: “He died surrounded by the best men on this earth”

Left: White House Chief of Staff John Kelly during Thursday's White House Press briefing. Right: Movie cover for "Taking Chance," a 2009 HBO film about escorting the body of Lance Corporal Chance Phelp's home. Phelps was killed during an ambush with then General John Kelly in Iraq in 2004. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

WWhite House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly fought back tears as he defended President Trump on Thursday, after learning a Congresswoman was questioning the sincerity of Trump’s condolences to the mother of a Floridian who was killed fighting overseas this month.

Kelly offered the President advice on how to console the bereaved families of the ambush on a Special Force group in Niger.  His first advice was not to call; in his experience many presidents did not call, they wrote letters.

“There is nothing you can do to lighten the burden on these families,” he told President Trump. “But let me tell you what I tell them. Let me tell you what my best friend Joe Dunford told me because he was my casualty officer.”

“Kell, he was doing exactly what he wanted to do when he was killed. He knew what he was getting into when he joined that one percent because we are at war,” Kelly said paraphrasing what Dunford had told him.  “When he died -the four cases we talked about in Niger, my son’s case in Afghanistan- when he died he was surrounded by the best men on this earth, his friends.”

This was the message he gave to the President, advice from his personal experiences of loss in war. “Its stuns me that a member of Congress would have listened in on that conversation,” Kelly said.

“I thought at least that was sacred…I just thought the selfless devotion that brings a man or woman to die on the battlefield, I just thought that might be sacred.”

Florida Congresswoman Fredrica Wilson says Trump’s statements to Sgt. La David T. Johnson’s pregnant widow, Myeshia, were insensitive.

While Trump did say “he knew what he signed up for,” it seems -according to John Kelly- that the Congresswoman misconstrued the message and took it out of context when she spoke to the press.

John Kelly is a 67-year-old retired four-star general who served for more than 40 years in the Marines; he is not a stranger to loss on the battlefield.   In 2004, while Marines were escorting then division commander Kelly’s convoy in Iraq when they were overwhelmed by a complex ambush.

During the firefight to escape the complex ambush, 19-year-old Lance Corporal Chance Phelps was killed in his gun turret in close proximity to the retired general. This death, along with his son’s death -Second Lt. Robert Kelly KIA in Afghanistan in 2010- have given him a deep and personal understanding of human sacrifice on the battlefield.

During Thursday’s press briefing, Kelly detailed the process of a service member coming home after dying in combat.

“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 — 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.”

This experience, emotional for all of those involved, was portrayed in a 2009 HBO film, “Taking Chance.”  Marine Lt. Colonel Michael Strobl, played by Kevin Bacon, felt the need to contribute to the war effort in Iraq because he was assigned a desk job at Marine Corps Base Quantico while many Marines he served with in the Gulf War were in Iraq again.

The Marine Lt. Colonel volunteered to personally escort Lance Corporal (posthumously promoted) Chance Phelps home -something usually done by a junior non-commissioned officer.

Kelly wrote Lt. Colonel Strobl to describe the events that led up to the death of the young Marine. “Your Marine’s vehicle was called forward to try and close the back door and prevent the guerrillas escape so we could kill them, and after accomplishing the maneuver and putting his gun in action, he was hit,” Kelly wrote, according the Washington Post.

“His buddies spent a few quiet moments and we talked about the loss, and what he meant — what he was like — to them all,” Kelly wrote. “Everyone offered a vignette, most were silly or funny, but that’s the kind of guy he was.”

Just as he did in 2009, while writing Lt. Colonel Stobl, Kelly reminded President Trump, “he died surrounded by the best men on this earth.”

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