Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security: Who Is John F. Kelly?

Tuesday, January 24, 2017
John F. Kelly

Former Marine Corps General John F. Kelly, who rose from the enlisted ranks to lead the United States Southern Command, was confirmed on January 20, 2017, to be Secretary of Homeland Security with the Senate voting 88-11. He was sworn in later the same day.


Kelly was born in Boston on May 11, 1950, and grew up in the neighborhood of Brighton. His taste for adventure manifested itself early; Kelly hitchhiked across the country and rode a freight train from Seattle to Chicago. He also served in the Merchant Marine, saying that his first trip overseas was to deliver beer to soldiers in Vietnam.


In 1970, with the likelihood that he’d be drafted, Kelly enlisted in the Marine Corps. He didn’t get to Vietnam with the Corps, though. He was assigned to the Second Marine Division at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, and mustered out in 1972 as a sergeant.


Kelly then returned to Boston for college with the idea of returning to the Marine Corps as an officer. He graduated in 1976 from the University of Massachusetts and went into Officer Candidate School. Later that year, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps and worked at the Pentagon. Kelly again went back to school, earning an M.S. in National Security Studies from Georgetown in 1984.


That same year, he returned to the Second Marine Division to become a company commander and in 1987 was promoted to major as battalion operations officer. He subsequently was head of the Offensive Tactics Section, Tactics Group, and later assumed the duties of the director of the Infantry Officer Course at Quantico, Virginia. After being selected to be lieutenant colonel, Kelly was made commanding officer of the 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion in the First Marine Division.


By 1995, Kelly had earned an M.S. from the National War College and was a colonel who worked on Capitol Hill in the Commandant’s Liaison Office. He was sent to Europe as special assistant to the Supreme Allied Commander in Mons, Belgium, in 1999.


Kelly returned to a combat unit and the First Marine Division in 2002 as assistant division commander. In 2003, while he was in Iraq, Kelly became the first officer promoted to general in a combat zone since it happened to Lewis “Chesty” Puller, also a Marine, in Korea in 1951.


Kelly returned to Washington in 2004 when he was made legislative assistant to the commandant. By 2008, he was a major general and made commander of the First Marine Expeditionary Force at Camp Pendleton, California. The following year he was put in charge of Marine Forces Reserve and Marine Forces North.


Both of Kelly’s sons served in the Marines. In 2010, his son Robert, who like his father had enlisted in the Marines and later become an officer, died when he stepped on a land mine in Afghanistan.


Kelly’s next assignment was a military assistant to the Secretary of Defense, first Robert Gates and then Leon Panetta. In 2013, Kelly was put in charge of the Southern Command, which is responsible for U.S. military activities in Central and South America. The Southern Command’s reliance on interagency cooperation and its focus on drug-trafficking and organized crime issues gave Kelly experience that would appear to translate well to leading the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).


Kelly’s appointment drew approval from Democrats as well as Republicans. Outgoing DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson had considered appointing Kelly to head the Secret Service when that agency was embroiled in controversy. Panetta has also praised Kelly’s appointment, saying “He has led our men and women in uniform and understands what it takes to keep our nation safe.”


But some civil libertarians are concerned about some stances Kelly has taken. Shortly after the death of his son, Kelly spoke to a group in St. Louis and said, “Their struggle is your struggle. If anyone thinks you can somehow thank them for their service, and not support the cause for which they fight—our country—these people are lying to themselves.…More important, they are slighting our warriors and mocking their commitment to this nation.”


Kelly has been reluctant to support the idea of opening all military jobs to women. “They’re saying we are not going to change any standards,” Kelly said. “There will be great pressure, whether it’s 12 months from now, four years from now, because the question will be asked whether we’ve let women into these other roles, why aren’t they staying in those other roles? Why aren't they advancing as infantry people?”


In addition, Kelly was critical of President Obama’s efforts to close the prison camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. When he couldn’t keep his promise to close the facility because of resistance from Congress, Kelly said in testimony, “In talking to the hunger strikers, they had great optimism that Guantánamo would be closed. They were devastated when the president backed off—at least their perception—of closing the facility.” Kelly also told The Washington Post in a 2014 interview that human rights concerns about the prisoners in Guantánamo were “foolishness.” Kelly retired from the Marine Corps in 2016.


Like his new boss, Donald Trump, Kelly has railed against the media. In 2010, he stated, “Yes, we are at war, and are winning, but you wouldn’t know it because successes go unreported, and only when something does go sufficiently or is sufficiently controversial, it is highlighted by the media elite that then sets up the ‘know it all’ chattering class to offer their endless criticism. These self-proclaimed experts always seem to know better, but have never themselves been in the arena.”


In addition to Robert, Kelly and his wife Karen have a son, John, who’s also a Marine officer, and a daughter, Kathleen.

-Steve Straehley


To Learn More:

What You Don’t Know About Gen. John Kelly (by Kevin Baron, Defense One)

A Troubling Quote From Trump’s Pick for Homeland Security Chief (by Greg Sargent, Washington Post)

Donald Trump Picks John Kelly, Retired General, to Lead Homeland Security (by Mark Landler and Maggie Haberman, New York Times)

Retired Marine Gen. John F. Kelly Picked to Head Department of Homeland Security (by Jerry Markon and Dan Lamothe, Washington Post)

Veterans Day Speech 2010 (John F. Kelly)

Official Biography (Department of Defense)


Joel c swift 7 years ago
Thank God Mr Kelly is in charge of protection of innocent American. People of all color and orig. God bless you. And also. Lt.col.mike Foster. 2012 ammps.program. kt168 Cummins power generation. Trailer Dept Thanks for giving me the courage to do what I do.I have a new professional group. Who are going to help me expose the truth.
william rohrbach 7 years ago
Dear Secretary Kelly Our President for whom I campaigned and voted is on a path to violate an oath he made to me and the rest of our citizens. Specifically, he promised to strengthen our military and protect our borders. How then can he propose cutting over $1B in funding for our Coast Guard? As a military man yourself you know that the mission of the coast Guard is extremely broad and has an extraordinary impact on our border security and the protection of the homeland. As a non-military man the President can be excused for failing to understand that the Coast Guard is an armed force of the United States and therefore a member of our military community; you Sir cannot be excused if you fail to educate him. The apprehension of illegals, drug dealers and criminals in our waters remains a critically vital aspect of the Coast Guards mission and no service is better trained or prepared for that mission. You have only to review the various reports of Homeland Security's performance during Katrina to understand the ways in which our Coast Guard distinguished itself and salvaged DHS's reputation. Please Sir, encourage the President to save funds in other ways like by abolishing DEA or the IRS but not by under funding this vitally important organization. Your reply is respectfully requested. William Rohrbach
Kristi 7 years ago
General Kelly: I am sure that I will never receive a response but I sincerely am asking you to the meet with President Trump on behalf of the United States Coast Guard - members of our military that have been obviously been left behind (and no, I am not a member of the Coast Guard). How can the President state that the DOD will receive billions in additional monies (much needed I agree) but then want to cut $1 billion from the United States Coast Guard's budget? This is very troubling. I sincerely hope that you do not agree with that assessment. I thought President Trump was all about protecting our homeland first and foremost? General Kelly, it is your job to ask and explain to the President that the Coast Guard just like the other branch of the military is also duct taping their cutters. It is a disgrace. The military stood strong behind President Trump in the election but the Coast Guard now feels that they are truly the "forgotten men and women". The men and women of the Coast Guard were extremely excited after eight years of nothing but cuts from the Obama administration and now feel betrayed. They thought they would finally have support from President Trump but President Trump's budget says otherwise. General Kelly, although a retired Marine, I would hope that you would stand tall and fight for the men and women in the United States Coast Guard. They deserve more. I would sincerely request a reply and the reason behind President Trump's slashing of the smallest budget of any military branch - the United States Coast Guard!
Mary Ann Harman 7 years ago
Please do what you can to encourage President Trump to allow Attorney General Sessions to be investigated for perjury. The reality of having an attorney general who thinks he is beyond the law is to me a threat to homeland security.
Irving Greines 7 years ago
Secretary/General Kelly: You have served our country with great distinction and you need no further honors to secure the respect you deserve. However, you are now entering into an area where nothing but disrespect will fall on you and will tarnish the great reputation you have earned. Acting in an inhumane way by supervising deportations that will achieve nothing be break up families and inflict great pain is beneath you as a human being and as a great American. It's time to stay no. It's time to draw a line on the side of honor and human decency. It's time to say no to a President that cares nothing about people and who harbors malice in his heart. Please protect yourself and our country. Say no or resign in honor. Thanks.
Maggie Sieg 7 years ago
For the sake of this country which I believe to my soul you love, stop POTUS! You know what he is saying & doing is dangerous, you've seen it first hand, unlike him. Or many of us because of people like you fight for us. & we the people are depending on you still! Just hours ago he talked about building our nuclear arsenal. Why?!? Haven't the majority of countries spent decades trying to lower number or at very least try to keep them the same. This is frightening! I'm 40 & I've never been so scared, & it's because of Trump. This letter is one of many I write daily in hopes prayers will be answered. There is no denying that Trump is POTUS but every day proves that he shouldn't be! I pray that you & others who want democracy & a world still standing will stop him. Truth is truth, facts are facts & we the people deserve a stable, competent & informed POTUS. Thank you for your service. I know everyday of my life has been possible because of people like you. I will always be grateful & pray for the safety of all

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