Mr. Kelly, who had long guarded his personal story of loss even as he served as a high-profile public official, broke that silence in dramatic fashion on Thursday. With no advance notice to reporters, Mr. Kelly offered poignant criticism of the news media and the broader society for failing to properly respect the fallen.
The appearance came after Mr. Trump and the White House were consumed by criticism after the president’s actions this week — first appearing to criticize former presidents for failing to call the families of fallen service members and later for the words Mr. Trump chose to use in speaking with the widow of Sgt. La David T. Johnson.
Mr. Kelly defended Mr. Trump by offering a detailed, even excruciating description of what happens to those killed in combat, including how the remains are packed in ice for the flights back to the United States. He testified to the deep pain that parents feel when they get an early-morning knock on the door from an official there to tell them that their son or daughter has been killed in action.
“The casualty officer proceeds to break the heart of a family member,” Mr. Kelly said, his eyes reddening as he spoke.
Credit Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images
He said that presidents often are not among those who call family members directly, and he confirmed what Mr. Trump had alluded to publicly this week: that former President Barack Obama had not called him after Lieutenant Kelly was killed.
“That was not a criticism, that was simply to say I don’t believe President Obama called,” Mr. Kelly said, adding that President George W. Bush and other presidents did not always make personal phone calls to family members. He said Lieutenant Kelly’s friends in Afghanistan called him in the hours after his son died.
“Those were the only phone calls that really matter,” Mr. Kelly said. “Yeah, the letters count to a degree. But there’s not much that can take the edge off.”
The controversy over Mr. Trump’s remarks began even before he made the calls to the families, when former Obama administration officials took offense at the suggestion that Mr. Obama had not done as much as Mr. Trump to pay honor to the fallen.
Mr. Kelly said that Mr. Trump did not intend that to be a criticism of his predecessor, but rather was repeating what Mr. Kelly had briefed him on before he got the question at an impromptu news conference on Monday in the Rose Garden.
Mr. Kelly expressed frustration and even anger at the fact that the conversation between Mr. Trump and Sergeant Johnson’s widow was exposed to the world by Ms. Wilson, a friend of the family, who was in the car with the family when the president’s call came in.
“I thought at least that was sacred,” Mr. Kelly said, expressing dismay at other aspects of society that were no longer sacred, including women, religion and Gold Star families.
Ms. Wilson had publicized her criticism of Mr. Trump’s call, saying that the president had told Sergeant Johnson’s widow that he “knew what he signed up for,” and that the family was offended by Mr. Trump’s words.
Mr. Kelly said that Mr. Trump had tried, in the call, to express what Mr. Kelly had talked to him about ahead of time — that people like her husband were doing what they loved, and what they had chosen to do, when they were killed serving the country.
“That’s what the president tried to say to four families,” Mr. Kelly said.
Mr. Kelly said that he was so upset on Wednesday that he went to the cemetery to walk among the service members who had died fighting for the country.
“Some of them,” he said, “I put there because they were doing what I told them to do when they were killed.”