Remembering Gen. P.X. Kelley
Remembering Gen. P.X. Kelley
By James C. Roberts
He was a Marine’s Marine, proud of his Irish heritage, a devoted family man
and an American who deeply loved his country.
There is much more that could be said about Gen. Paul Xavier Kelley, 28 th
Commandant of the Marine Corps, who died on December 29 at the age of 91.
He first spoke at an American Veterans Center event over 10 years ago and that
began a friendship that lasted the better part of a decade until he succumbed to
We met occasionally for lunch at the Army and Navy Club and I visited him
and his wife Barbara in their apartment. I cherish the memories of those
Gen. Kelley had an extraordinary record during his 35 years of service in the
Marine Corps. He served two combat tours in Vietnam and was awarded several
medals for valor, and was commanding office of the last combat unit to leave the
country. He was commanding officer of the Rapid Deployment Task Force, which
was the forerunner of Central command. The youngest Marine ever promoted to
the rank of general, P.X. had the unique privilege of serving with the Army and
Navy as well as in the Marine Corps. He completed so many parachute that he
severely damaged his back. He served as a commander at every level in the corps
up to the rank up to, and including Commandant.
True to his Irish heritage he was a great story teller. He liked to reminisce
about the adventures of growing up in Boston, attending Catholic schools and
His long service in the Marine Corps was of course the great mission of his
life and the source of great pride – and occasionally grief.
He told me with great sadness of the time a Marine in his company was
killed (I don’t remember the circumstances). As was his practice he visited the
Marine’s mother who lived in a poor part of town. She was a middle-aged African
American woman whom he found sitting stoically in a chair.
P.X. expressed his condolences to the mother and she replied, “God told
me that he was giving me a baby boy. He didn’t tell me how long I would have
P.X. Kelley wept that day.
Gen. Kelley doted on his wife Barbara and talked about how proud he was
of her resilience as a Marine Corps wife and especially how magnificently she
performed as hostess at the commandant’s residence where the steam of dinners
and receptions was endless. He was also very proud of his daughter Chris and her
success as a business woman.
His favorite topic though, was Ronald Reagan, the Commander in Chief he
served for four years and of the friendship they developed, made deeper I’m sure
by the tragedy of the Beirut barracks bombing of in which 241 U.S. Servicemen
were killed by Iranian – backed terrorists. Reagan said it was the worst day of his
presidency and Kelley that it was the worst day of his life. The two spent countless hours consoling the families of the fallen Marines and corresponding with the
P.X. talked fondly about riding horseback with President Reagan at the
Quantico Marine base and of the long conversations the two Irishmen had on the
On one occasion, Gen. Kelley said, the President remarked, “You know P.X.,
I was in the Army and I know you’re not supposed to salute unless you have a hat
on, but I feel awkward when I get off Air Force One and the officer greeting me
salutes and I can’t do anything.
Well, P.X. replied, “Mr. President you’re the Commander-in- Chief. You
make the rules. If you want to salute, salute”
Reagan began during so and every President since has followed suit.
Proud as he was of being a Marine, Gen. Kelley’s greatest honor was being named
head of the American Battle monuments Commission and being given responsibly
for the Fundraising, design and construction of the National World War II
Veterans Memorial on the National Mall. In this effort he as assisted enormously
by Sen. Bob Dole and actor Tom Hanks.
He brought this attitude to his position as an Advisory Board Members of
the American Veterans Center. He cheerfully signed fund appeals for the AVC and
brought thousands of new members into the organization.
He spoke at several of our conferences where he reveled in being in the
company of the audience composed largely for future officers.
He worked hard to instill in his young audiences the virtues and duties of a
military officer – duty, self-sacrifice, courage, patriotism and the rest, illustrated
with stories from his own career in a particularly poignant story he told at our
2015 conference, the General related that, while shaving one morning he took a
call from a young girl. She stated that if the students in her class had a family
member who had been awarded the Purple Heart and wrote about it they would
receive extra credit. She believed that her grandfather had received the Purple
Heart and asked where to go for information.
P. X. put down the phase and got the phone number for her and hung up.
Some weeks later the girl called back to say thanks, that she had gotten the
Gen. Kelley said, “You know I don’t know your name.”
She told him and then he asked the name of her grandfather
“Gunny Sergeant Billy Howard,” she replied. “My heart leaped into my
throat” P.X. Said.
“I had held Billy Howard to my breast while he died in Vietnam.”
“The family later called and asked if I could come and read the citation at
“I went and I started to read, but I couldn’t get through it.”
P.X. said he “sort of adopted the family after that.”
“I tell this story,” he said, “to show that military service is a lot more than
shooting and flying and killing it has a lot of humanity, a lot of love “in it.”
His audiences loved Gen. Kelley and he stayed behind long after his
remarks to talk with them, take photos and answer their questions. A man in his
eighties, P.X. Kelley was like his friend Ronald Reagan, a man focused on the
If we are to have a future it will be because the spirt embodied by Gen. P. X.
Kelly inspires the leaders of tomorrow.
Gen. P.X. was a unique and great American. One of the greatest honors of
my life was getting to know him and being able to call him my friend.
The author is President of the American Veterans Center