Politics

The Long Road Home

  • Lt. Gen John Kelly met with members of his son’s Marine unit in southern Afghanistan.  2nd Lt. Robert M. Kelly, 29, was killed by an improvised explosive device last November. (Fox News Photo)

    Lt. Gen John Kelly met with members of his son’s Marine unit in southern Afghanistan. 2nd Lt. Robert M. Kelly, 29, was killed by an improvised explosive device last November. (Fox News Photo)

  • Lt. Gen John Kelly told lawmakers he will protect the men and women who serve under him. (Fox News Photo)

    Lt. Gen John Kelly told lawmakers he will protect the men and women who serve under him. (Fox News Photo)

It is a journey that no father should have to take. But for Lt. Gen. John Kelly, whose son Robert was a Marine with the 3rd Battalion of the 5th Regiment, it was a necessary trip.

2nd Lt. Robert M. Kelly, 29, was killed instantly when he stepped on a land mine last November while leading his Marines in a tough fight to win control of a Taliban sector in southern Afghanistan -- a fight his unit eventually won.

General Kelly is the senior most member of the US military to lose a son in battle. He is also Defense Secretary Robert Gates' newly appointed senior military aide. Gates arrived in Afghanistan on Monday for a surprise visit. For Kelly, it was his first trip back to Afghanistan since his son was killed, back to the platoon that his son led.

Even a Marine would have a hard time fighting back tears. Members of the press corps certainly did.

The battalion gave the general the last photo taken of his son on the morning he was killed, signed by each member of his unit. He showed it to me as we boarded an Osprey to leave Helmand.

"He loved the Marine Corps, he really did," Kelly could be heard telling the Marines huddled around him. "He had a lot of friends."

Twenty-nine members of the 3rd battalion of the 5th regiment have been killed since October, and 175 wounded.

Secretary Gates stopped for a brief visit with the Medevac units at Camp Leatherneck in Helmand province, a fiercely contested region now secured by the Marines after a bloody year-long fight. One of Gates' signature achievements and one of his strongest legacies will be the ramped up production of MRAP's, mine resistant ambush protected vehicles. They are considered the single best protection the Marines in Helmand province have against pervasive enemy roadside bombs -- the signature weapon of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Gates' second legacy will likely be the priority he gave to Medevac teams in Afghanistan. Two years ago when he heard that the so-called "golden hour", known in Iraq as the standard time it takes to get wounded to a medical facility, was actually the "golden two hours" in Afghanistan, he demanded the military do better. So he deployed more helicopters, personnel and mobile medical units.

When Gates began that effort to decrease the amount of time it takes to move the wounded to a military hospital, the average time in Afghanistan was about 1 hour and 41 minutes. Now, two years later, the golden hour is on average just around 40 minutes.

Even as weather prevented planes from taking off and landing at Bagram air base on Monday, Gates' C-17 military transport plane waited on the tarmac, delayed as Medevac units took off into the fog. They were the only military planes other than Gates' authorized to fly that day.

As Gates and his team sat on the tarmac and watched, the burn of those engines served as a solemn reminder that the fighting in Afghanistan is far from over.

Fox News Pentagon producer Justin Fishel contributed to this story.

Jennifer Griffin currently serves as a national security correspondent for FOX News Channel . She joined FNC in October 1999 as a Jerusalem-based correspondent. You can follow her on Twitter at @JenGriffinFNC.