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A meeting with the president
Herald and News published January 10, 2005, by Pat Kelly, guest columnist

A few weeks ago, on Dec. 7, I met the president of the United States.

It started Dec. 1, when my wife and I got a phone call from Camp Pendleton Calif. I was told this was a personal invitation from the president, and he wanted to meet my wife and me. At first I was unsure that this could really be true. After all, I am from Klamath Falls, and in all of Klamath County I'll bet that not more than 50 or so people have ever met a president.

Bryan Kelly Killed in action

That's not to say that I haven't come close. In 1984 I was a Klamath Falls police officer and part of the security team assigned to the speech of President Ronald Reagan at Bing's Satellite Room, the restaurant at the airport. I and a Secret Service agent were assigned to guard the kitchen. I guarded the door from the kitchen to the dining room, and I got a good look at the president and listened to part of his speech. I never thought I would get closer than that to a president.

On Dec. 7, when we arrived at Camp Pendleton, my wife and I were cleared through the main gate and used the special parking provided for those who had received the invitation from the president. After getting our names checked off the list, we were searched by Secret Service agents.

Inside the gym were areas curtained into small cubicles. Each cubicle had a list of five or six names pinned to the entrance. My wife and I found our names on No. 14. I wasn't able to count the cubicles, but in the half of the gym we were in, there were at least twenty.

The president arrived

We were served a continental breakfast, and a TV set showed the president's speech to the Marines in the bleachers just outside the gym, on the football field. Just after we got into the gym I heard a helicopter land outside. We all knew the president had arrived.

I watched the president give his speech on the monitor. When he finished, I grabbed a roll and coffee. I really hadn't met anyone else in my cubicle.

I found out quickly that there were some special people with my wife and me.

The first was the widow of a Marine killed in March 2003 when his M1 Abrams tank fell off of a bridge while attempting a night crossing of the Euphrates River near Baghdad. He and his crew drowned because the tank landed upside down. This woman's husband was one of the first Marines to die in Iraq.

The second was the widow of an explosive ordnance disposal expert killed early in 2004 trying to disarm a car bomb in Baghdad. The driver of the car had been killed by the Marines at a checkpoint, when he jumped out and started shooting at them. When the car was checked, it was found to be packed with explosives.

Shortly after her husband arrived to check it, the car exploded. The bomb had a remote detonating device, and was probably detonated by a cell phone call made by someone in the crowd. The people who made that bomb knew that it takes more than a year to train an explosives expert, and they waited for him to get there before detonating the bomb.

I also met a Marine whose brother had been killed by a roadside bomb. The Marines call these "IEDs," or "improvised explosive device." This Marine's widow was there also. Most of the Marines killed in Iraq have been the victims of these roadside killers.

Maybe you are wondering why my wife and I were with this very special group of people. My name is Pat Kelly, and my wife's name is Joan Kelly. My son was Lance Cpl. Bryan Patrick Kelly. Bryan was a Marine who was killed in action July 16 near a town called Latifaiya, on a road called IED Alley by the Marines of my son's unit, in an area called the Sunni Triangle by the news media, in the country of Iraq.

Bryan Kelly was born and raised in Klamath Falls. He went to school at Mills Elementary School and Ponderosa Junior High, and he graduated in 2001 from Klamath Union High School. Bryan wanted to be a firefighter and was learning that trade with Fire District No. 4. He was also attending Klamath Community College and was taking EMT training and other firefighter-related classes.

In May 2002 Bryan came to my wife and me and said he was thinking about joining the Marine Corps. We had noticed that after 9-11 Bryan was restless. We understood when he told us that he needed to serve his country in the war against terrorism. My wife and I gave him our blessing.

Bryan served his first tour in Iraq from February 2003 to October 2003. Bryan came home a different person.

Yes, Bryan was different after Marine Boot Camp and advanced infantry training. He gained self-confidence when he graduated No. 1 in his class at the combat engineer school, but the war changed Bryan in ways that are difficult to explain.

He never talked much about the things that happened to him during his first tour. It wasn't until after he was killed that I heard some of the stories from the men who served with him.

One of Bryan's friends, Chris, was also his fire team leader during the initial push by the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force to Baghdad. Chris told me a story about one experience.

Chris, Bryan and another combat engineer were assigned to an infantry unit of about 20 men sent on a patrol into the outskirts of Baghdad. The patrol was ambushed as it entered an intersection. The enemy was in concrete buildings on the upper floors and roofs and pinned down the patrol with heavy fire from automatic weapons. Bryan's fire team had been at the rear of the patrol, and hadn't entered the intersection when the enemy opened fire. Chris led his fire team around a building which enabled them to outflank the ambush. They then opened a heavy fire on the ambushers, which resulted in the ambush being broken and most of their attackers being killed. In spite of the heavy fire no Marine was wounded or killed.

Mementoes treasured

Chris received the Navy Marine Achievement medal with a V device for Valor. Chris told me that Bryan deserved that medal as much as he did. That medal is now in a display case in my living room with the other items my wife and I treasure in memory of our son.

Bryan was a member of the 1st Combat Engineer Battalion of the 1st Marine Division. Bryan's squad was assigned to B Company, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, 5th Marine Expeditionary Force during Operation Iraqi Freedom in March 2003. (Combat engineers are assigned by squad to infantry companies on combat operations) The 1st Combat Engineer Battalion has lost 13 men killed in action in Iraq.

Well, there I sat, in a cubicle in a gymnasium, at Camp Pendleton, talking to the family members of other Marines who have died in Iraq. Suddenly I was slapped on the back, and a man said, "How are you today, sir? My name is George Bush." That's not exactly how you expect to meet the president of the United States of America, now, is it?

While I remember every word President Bush said to me, most of what he said was very personal, and I cannot share it just yet. I did ask him to sign a picture of his Scotty dog to my granddaughter, and he did. I'll bet that she is the only 6-year-old in Klamath Falls with a picture autographed by the president of the United States.

Have you ever wondered what kind of man President Bush really is? Here is something that I saw that might help you judge for yourself. The young widow of a Marine was sitting at the back of the cubicle all alone. The president was talking with those of us who had jumped up when he entered, and were busy falling all over ourselves for the chance to meet and talk with him. But then the president saw this young lady sitting all alone at the back of the cubicle. He separated himself from the rest of us and walked back to her and sat down beside her. The president reached out and took her hand, holding it in both of his.

I don't know what the president said. All I know is that they talked quietly and earnestly for several minutes. Then both stood up, and they hugged and talked briefly again with the president holding her hand all the while. She smiled. Then the president had to go. There were other families he needed to see.

You might think that every parent, every widow, every child of every Marine killed in Iraq would come to meet the president of the United States of America if they had the opportunity. You would be wrong. I have met the parents of other Marines from my son's unit killed in Iraq. They came to a memorial service held by the 1st Combat Engineer Battalion, but not to meet the president. Not everyone deals with the death of a child, husband or father in the same way, or in the same time frame.

I graduated from high school in 1966. I grew up watching American soldiers dying every night on the TV news. I enlisted in the Army in 1963 and my brother enlisted the same year. My brother served 20 months in Vietnam, and I was stationed in Germany for almost three years. The United States never finished the war in Vietnam.

One of the president's aides told us we could say anything we wanted to the president when we talked with him. The only really important thing I said to President Bush was, "Finish it." He answered, "We will, I promise."

I hope and pray that we do finish this one. The world needs to be free of terrorists and the terrible things they do. I have another reason for wanting this war finished, a selfish reason. I want this war finished because my son died trying to free this country from the threat of terrorism, and that wasn't the only reason for his death: He also died so that the people of Iraq can be free.

The author Pat Kelly, a retired sheriff's detective and former police trainer, is the father of Marine Lance Cpl. Bryan Kelly, who was killed in action in Iraq in July.





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