ARLINGTON, Va. — Amid a military tradition honed by the agony of warfare, Marine 1st Lt. Robert Michael Kelly was honored and buried Monday at Arlington National Cemetery in the section reserved for those who have fallen in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Kelly, 29, was killed Nov. 9 in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan in a disheveled place called Sangin, long a Taliban stronghold. He was leading his platoon on a combat patrol when he stepped on a concealed bomb.
Kelly was believed to be the only son of a general to have been killed in Iraq or Afghanistan during the last nine years.
His father, Marine Lt. Gen. John Kelly, speaking during the funeral service at the Fort Myer Memorial Chapel adjacent to Arlington National Cemetery, said he preferred not to eulogize just his son. He wanted to honor all those who enlisted after the Sept. 11 attacks ready to fight "an enemy that is as savage as any that ever walked the Earth."
The elder Kelly led Marines during the assault on Baghdad and Tikrit in 2003 and during the battle for Fallujah, Iraq, in April 2004. He then served a year as the top Marine in Iraq, returning to Camp Pendleton, in San Diego, in early 2009.
Robert Kelly's older brother, Marine Capt. John Kelly, served two combat tours in Iraq and is now stationed at Twentynine Palms in California, where he is helping train troops for Afghanistan.
With an all-volunteer force, only about 1 percent of American families have members serving in the nation's wars, but among that 1 percent, there are families for whom service and sacrifice have become a generational obligation.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates noted in a recent speech that there are "a large number" of sons and daughters of senior officers serving combat tours. Tony Odierno, the son of Army Gen. Ray Odierno, formerly the top U.S. officer in Iraq, lost an arm in combat in Iraq in 2004.
For most of the time since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, there has been at least one member of Robert Kelly's immediate family serving in a combat zone.
Robert Kelly was heavily involved in the house-to-house fighting during the second assault on Fallujah, in November 2004, considered the bloodiest urban warfare for the Marines since Vietnam. A graduate of Florida State University, he finished his first enlistment as a corporal, and then re-enlisted in 2008 as an officer, following a path similar to that taken by his father.
Robert Kelly was the only officer among 15 Marines from the Camp Pendleton-based 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment killed during a recent five-week span of fighting in Sangin. Death, as for many U.S. troops killed in Afghanistan, was instantaneous — the Taliban have developed ever more powerful bombs and better methods of concealment.
"He went quickly and thank God he did not suffer," Kelly's father, who is now based in Washington as commander of the Marine reserves, wrote to friends. "In combat that is as good as it gets."
The Marines have rushed replacements to Sangin, including more young officers and Navy corpsmen. Tanks are being shipped. The U.S. hopes the ongoing battle will prove a turning point in the nine-year war with Taliban militants.
In the days after his son's death, the elder John Kelly visited the three to five wounded who are at National Naval Medical Center at Bethesda, Md. Others are at the Naval Medical Center San Diego. More arrive almost daily. Among the wounded is the son of a recently retired colonel.
Even in his grief, Kelly has tried to discourage news coverage that suggests his son's death is any more tragic than other American losses on the battlefield.
As condolence e-mails and calls began pouring in, Kelly sent back notes of thanks in which he said that for the Kelly family, including his wife, Karen, daughter Kathleen and Robert's wife, Heather, "the pain is unimaginable and we could not do this without you."
John Kelly asked that people "direct the majority of your prayers to his platoon of Marines, still in contact (with the enemy) and in harm's way, and at greater risk without his steady leadership."