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Kelly Defends Trump's Phone Call to Family of Slain Soldier

White House Chief of Staff John Kelly pauses as he speaks to the media during the daily briefing in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House, Thursday, Oct. 19, 2017. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly pauses as he speaks to the media during the daily briefing in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House, Thursday, Oct. 19, 2017. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Retired Marine Gen. John Kelly spoke movingly Thursday of his own son's death in combat as he defended President Donald Trump's controversial attempt to console the family of a soldier slain in Niger.

Kelly also harshly criticized Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., for listening to Trump's phone call to the family of Sgt. La David Johnson and giving her account of what was said.

In numerous TV interviews, Wilson has claimed that Trump upset the family by telling them that Sgt. Johnson "knew what he signed up for, but I guess it still hurt." She told CNN that Trump was "cold-hearted and he feels no pity or sympathy for anyone."

Both Trump and Wilson claim to have "proof" of what actually was said in the phone call, but neither has thus far disclosed it.

In an emotional appearance in the White House briefing room, Kelly shed no light on what actually was said between Trump and the family, but he accused Wilson of "selfish behavior" and said she was profoundly wrong to characterize the conversation.

"Let's not let this maybe last thing that is held sacred in our society, a young man, a young woman going out and giving his or her life for our country, let's try to somehow keep that sacred," Kelly said.

"I was stunned when I came to work yesterday, and brokenhearted, when I saw what a member of Congress was doing," he said. "What she was saying, what she was doing on TV -- the only thing I could do to collect my thoughts was to go walk among the finest men or women on this earth."

Kelly said he went for an hour to Arlington National Cemetery, where his son, Marine 1st Lt. Robert Kelly, is buried in Section 60 with other service members who were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Robert Kelly was killed in 2010 by an improvised explosive device in the northern Sangin district of Afghanistan's southwestern Helmand province, which has been the site of more U.S. casualties than any other Afghan province in the 16-year-old war.

In the years since his son's death, Kelly has been reluctant to speak in public about it, saying on one occasion that his son deserved no more recognition than any other U.S. casualty of war.

He dropped that reluctance Tuesday in the White House briefing room in disclosing how Trump came to him for advice on how to speak to the families of Johnson and three other members of the Army's 3rd Special Forces Group who were killed in an ambush in Niger on Oct. 4.

But first Kelly gave a graphic primer on how the military deals with those killed in combat.

Most Americans don't know what happens, he said. The bodies are packed in ice to be transported from the battlefield, usually to a mortuary in Landstuhl, Germany, he said.

There they are packed in ice again for the trip to Dover, Del., Air Force Base, where morticians meticulously dress them in uniforms before they are returned to their families.

Kelly also told of how the military informs the families. Casualty officers wait outside the homes for the first lights to be turned on before knocking at the door, he said. Then "the casualty officer proceeds to break the heart of a family member," he said.

In the case of the Kelly family, the designated casualty officer coming with the news that Robert Kelly had been killed was Kelly's best friend, Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, who is now chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Kelly said Dunford told him that his son "was doing exactly what he wanted to do" as a Marine defending his country. "When he died, he was surrounded" by those with whom he served in battle, Dunford told Kelly.

He said Lt. Kelly's friends in Afghanistan called him in the hours after his son died. "Those were the only phone calls that really matter,"Kelly said. "Yeah, the letters count to a degree, but there's not much that can take the edge off."

Kelly said he believed that Trump in his phone call to the Johnson family was simply trying to convey what Dunford had told him in 2010 -- that Sgt. Johnson died doing what he loved, and what he had chosen to do.

"That's what the president tried to do" in the disputed phone call on Monday, Kelly said, though he had advised against it.

"If you're not in the family, if you've never worn the uniform, if you're not in combat, you can't even begin to imagine how to make that call," Kelly said. "My first recommendation was not to do it."

Trump pulled Kelly into the controversy Tuesday by seeming to suggest that he was more responsive to the families of the fallen than former President Barack Obama and other presidents.

Trump said on Fox News that "You could ask General Kelly, did he get a call from Obama?"

Kelly said that Obama "did not call my family" but 'that's not a negative thing. There's no perfect way to make that phone call."

In a Tweet on Tuesday, Trump said that Rep. Wilson "totally fabricated what I said to the wife of a soldier who died in action (and I have proof). Sad!"

At the White House Wednesday, Trump told reporters that "I didn't say what that Congresswoman said -- didn't say it all."

"I had a very nice conversation with the woman, with the wife who was -- sounded like a lovely woman. Did not say what the Congresswoman said, and most people aren't too surprised to hear that," he said.

However, Cowanda Jones-Johnson, Sgt. Johnson's mother told The Washington Post Wednesday that she was present during the call from Trump to Johnson's widow, Myeshia Johnson.

"President Trump did disrespect my son and my daughter and also me and my husband," Jones-Johnson said.

In addition to Sgt. Johnson, 25, of Miami, Staff Sgts. Bryan Black, 35, of Puyallup, Wash.; Jeremiah Johnson, 39, of Springboro, Ohio; and Dustin Wright, 29, of Lyons, Ga., were killed in the Oct. 4 ambush near the Mali border as they were on an advise and assist patrol with Nigerien troops.

Johnson became separated from the others during the firefight and his body was not recovered by Nigerien troops until two days after the others. The Army has begun an Article 15-6 fact-finding investigation on how the ambush came about and how Johnson was separated during the battle.

On Thursday, Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, demanded more information from the military on the attack which resulted in the first U.S. combat casualties in Niger. "It may require a subpoena," McCain told reporters.

At a Pentagon briefing Thursday, Dana White, the chief spokeswoman for the Defense Department, said the information will be forthcoming but "we will not be rushed because we have to be right."

Marine Lt. Gen Kenneth McKenzie, director of the Joint Staff, insisted that Johnson was not left behind although his body could not be located for two days.

"He was separated," McKenzie said at the briefing with White. "We don't leave anyone behind. We didn't leave him behind. We searched until we found him."

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

Related Topics

Donald Trump Afghanistan Niger Headlines Army Richard Sisk

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