Roy Exum: Veterans Day 2019

Monday, November 11, 2019 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

There is a lot of water than has gone down-stream since this day nine years ago, now just two days shy of Nov. 13, 2010, when Marine Corps General John Kelly gave what is arguably one of the greatest talks in our nation’s history. The speech, which captures what our veterans mean to our nation as today we stand once again in awe and gratitude today, was given at the Hyatt Hotel Under the Arch in St. Louis. General Kelly had been booked for months to speak to a standing room only crowd of the Semper Fi Society, and it was a big deal as all Marine tributes and celebrations and funerals rightfully are.

Admittedly, this is my favorite of all tributes to the incessant valor our men and women in uniform provide every day, but it is doubly so, because I know the back story. Four days before General Kelly gave this address, there was a brisk knock on the door of the house where he and his wife were quartered in the Washington Navy Yard. Kelly had just turned the lights on in the kitchen to make morning coffee and as he was surprised by the 6:15 a.m. interruption, the very second he opened the door to find his best friend, fellow Marine General Joseph Dunford standing in his crisp dress blues, he saw the tears welling in Joe’s eyes. “I then did the most difficult thing I’ve done in my life,” Kelly would later tell The Washington Post. “I walked upstairs, woke Karen to the news and broke her heart.”

On Nov. 9, 2010, Marine Lt. Robert Michael Kelly was leading a patrol in Sangin, Afghanistan, when the 29-year-old Florida State graduate stepped on a land mine and was killed instantly. If you want, you can google General Kelly and see what he went through as Donald Trump’s Chief of Staff until January of this year but it’s not that fun a read. What matters more is that when General Kelly spoke to the Semper Fi crowd in St. Louis, less than half a dozen people knew his son had been killed in combat four days earlier, and Kelly gave the strict order that it must not be yet revealed publicly, that no one should know, lest it might take the shine, the glory and the heroism from “his sons and daughters” in the Corps.

At the beginning of his talk, General Kelly spoke of the men and the women who assure us our liberties and freedom. “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,” then Marine Lt. General Kelly said in his speech.

He continued, “As anyone who has ever experienced combat knows, when it starts, when the explosions and tracers are everywhere and the calls for the Corpsman 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 coward for cowering behind a wall or in a hole, slave to the most basic of all human instincts—survival—none of them do.”

He went on, “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.”

Then it really got good.

* * *

IN JUST SIX SECONDS … from a speech by Marine General John Kelly, Nov. 13, 2010, in St. Louis, Mo.

Two years ago when I was the Commander of all U.S. and Iraqi forces, in fact, the 22nd of April 2008, two Marine infantry battalions, 1/9 “The Walking Dead,” and 2/8 were switching out in Ramadi. One battalion in the closing days of their deployment going home very soon, the other just starting its seven-month combat tour.

Two Marines, Corporal Jonathan Yale and Lance Corporal Jordan Haerter, 22 and 20 years old respectively, one from each battalion, were assuming the watch together at the entrance gate of an outpost that contained a makeshift barracks housing 50 Marines.

The same broken down ramshackle building was also home to 100 Iraqi police, also my men and our allies in the fight against the terrorists in Ramadi, a city until recently the most dangerous city on earth and owned by Al Qaeda. Yale was a dirt poor mixed-race kid from Virginia with a wife and daughter, and a mother and sister who lived with him and he supported as well. 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 America’s exist simultaneously depending on one’s race, education level, economic status, and where you might have been born. But they were Marines, combat Marines, forged in the same crucible of Marine training, 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 the sergeant squad leader I am sure went something like: “Okay you two clowns, stand this post and let no unauthorized personnel or vehicles pass.” “You clear?” I am also sure Yale and Haerter then 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 alley way—perhaps 60-70 yards in length—and sped its way through the serpentine of concrete jersey walls. The truck stopped just short of where the two were posted and detonated, killing them both catastrophically. Twenty-four brick masonry houses were damaged or destroyed. A mosque 100 yards away collapsed. The truck’s engine came to rest two hundred yards away knocking most of a house down before it stopped.

Our explosive experts reckoned the blast was made of 2,000 pounds of explosives. Two died, and 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 about the incident a few hours after it happened, I called the regimental commander for details as something about this struck me as different. Marines dying or being seriously wounded is commonplace in combat. 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. I figured 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 as a combat award that requires two eye-witnesses 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. The blue truck turned down into the alley and immediately sped up as it made its way through the serpentine. They all said, “We knew immediately what was going on as soon as the two Marines began firing.” The Iraqi police then 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, he said, 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.”

“No sane man.”

“They saved us all.”

What we didn’t know at the time, and only learned a couple of days later after I wrote a summary and submitted both Yale and Haerter for posthumous Navy Crosses, was that one of our security cameras, damaged initially in the blast, recorded some of the suicide attack. It happened exactly as the Iraqis had 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. Putting myself in their heads I supposed 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. Exactly 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.”

The two Marines had about five seconds left to live. It took maybe another two seconds for them to present their weapons, take aim, and open up. By this time the truck was half-way through the barriers and gaining speed the whole time. 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. They had three seconds left to live.

For about two seconds more, the recording shows the Marines’ weapons firing non-stop…the truck’s windshield exploding into shards of glass as their rounds take it apart and tore in to the body of the son-of-a-bitch who is trying to get past them to kill their brothers—American and Iraqi—bedded down in the barracks totally unaware of the fact that their lives at that moment depended entirely on two Marines standing their ground. If they had been aware, they would have known they were safe … because two Marines stood between them and a crazed suicide bomber.

The recording shows the truck careening to a stop immediately in front of the two Marines. In all of the instantaneous violence Yale and Haerter never hesitated. By all reports and by the recording, they never stepped back. They never even started to step aside. They never even shifted their weight. With their feet spread shoulder width apart, they leaned into the danger, firing as fast as they could work their weapons. They had only one second left to live.

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 … into eternity. That is the kind of people who are on watch all over the world tonight—for you.

* * *

On October 15, 2010 – three weeks before his death – Lt. Robert Kelly received a letter from his dad that read, in part:

“I know you guys have taken some licks in the last few days… Robert, you will likely lose one or more of your precious Marines if you haven’t already. Do not let the men mope or dwell on the loss… Do not let them ever enjoy the killing or hate their enemy. It is impossible to take the emotion out of it, but try and keep it as impersonal and mechanical as you can. The Taliban have their job to do and we have ours. That’s it…”

He concluded, “Combat is so inhumane; you must help your men maintain their humanity as well as their sense of perspective and proportion.”

Humanity + Perspective + Proportion = Decency.                             

* * *

May God continue to bless America and its veterans who … well, don’t seem normal. American warriors don’t flinch.

Marines defending their post
Marines defending their post

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