Last week, President Donald Trump’s chief of staff John Kelly took the podium in the White House Briefing Room and eloquently shed a sobering, poignant, and apolitical light on realities of war, military service, and death seldom discussed in today’s highly politicized times. It was a message of grief and honor, service and valor that America needed to hear, but it was not the first time the decorated veteran delivered such awe-inspiring remarks.
On November 13, 2010, just four days after the tragic death of his son, 29-year-old Second Lt. Robert Kelly, on the battle field in Afghanistan, then-Lt. Gen. John Kelly addressed the Semper Fi Society of St. Louis and delivered a moving eulogy for two fallen soldiers. He painstakingly described new video that had emerged from a 2008 suicide bombing in Iraq that killed Marines Cpl. Jonathan Yale, 22, and Lance Cpl. Jordan Haerter, 20.
Yale and Haerter had literally just met—one was part of a battalion in the closing days of its deployment, while the other was just starting a seven-month combat tour—and were assigned watch the entrance gate of an outpost that contained a makeshift barracks housing 50 Marines and 100 Iraqi police. Kelly shared:
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.
Minutes later, the men faced an explosive-packed truck barreling toward them. Confronted with their own mortality, Kelly explained to the packed crowd that the young Marines had but six seconds left to live, but rather than back down, they quite literally stood their ground and saved dozens of lives in the process.
“The truck stopped just short of where the two were posted and detonated, killing them both catastrophically,” Kelly said. “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,” he continued. “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.”
Kelly explained that in the days following the attacks, he traveled to Ramadi and spoke with Iraqi forces, who all told him the same story of the Marines incredible heroism. While “no sane man” would have widened his stance and essentially leaned in with a truck barreling toward him, that is exactly what Yale and Haerter did that day. The consensus was clear, their selfless action saved 150 lives.
But is what Kelly described next about the psychology of the final seconds of these brave men’s lives that puts everything into perspective:
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 security cameras, damaged initially in the blast, recorded some of the suicide attack. It happened exactly as the Iraqi’s 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 suppose it took about a second for the two Marines to separately come to the same conclusion about that 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 halfway through he 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 nonstop, 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.
While Kelly’s words would have been powerful under any circumstances, the fact that he was just days removed from learning of the death of his own son makes his composure and reverence as admirable as it is compelling. Ultimately, Kelly left the audience with a simple message: we should all rest easier at night knowing that men like Yale, Haerter, and, may we add, his son Robert, are on guard protecting our freedom.
“Six seconds,” Kelly concluded. “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—you for.”
Read Kelly’s remarks in their entirety HERE.