In his April 2017 book "Make Your Bed," Admiral William McRaven described what it was like for him as a leader and military officer to receive the families of fallen troops — including those who died under his command.
The former SEAL officer vividly paints a scene at Dover Air Force Base, the first stop on American soil for the remains of U.S. troops killed in combat. The waiting rooms are filled with "wives with a far-off look of disbelief, ... inconsolable children, ... [and] parents holding hands hoping to gain strength from one another."
A number of Navy SEALs died in 2011 when their helicopter was shot down over Afghanistan – all 38 men aboard were killed, including 30 Americans. It was the single greatest U.S. loss in the War on Terror. Then-President Barack Obama, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, and the military's senior leadership were all present to receive the flag-draped coffins.
The admiral and his wife were there too. He writes in his book that he began to wonder if his words were any solace to the families, if they made any difference at all, or if the shock made his words incomprehensible to the bereaved. He knew what he said was never going to be enough, but he tried to empathize with them.
That's when he noticed a then-Marine Lt. Gen. John Kelly talking to a number of the families. He could tell that what Kelly was saying was actually hitting home to those who lost their loved ones. The effect was what McRaven described as "profound." He hugged them and they hugged him in turn.
General Kelly talked to every person in the room.
The Marine's word hit home because they weren't the words of comfort from a commander to his troops' families, they were the words of a parent who lost a son in combat, just as they had.
Marine 1st Lt. John Kelly was killed in Afghanistan in 2010 after stepping on a land mine. John Kelly knew exactly what the people in that waiting room were feeling and what the days ahead held for the families of the departed.
Only General Kelly could have said anything that would mean something to those who lost their children, parents, and spouses in combat. As McRaven puts it:
"When you lose a soldier, you grieve for the families but you also fear that the same fate may one day befall you. You wonder whether you could survive the loss of a child. Or you wonder how your family would get along without you by their side. You hope and pray that God will be merciful and not have you shoulder this unthinkable burden."