General Kelly served as the Commander, United States Southern Command, Miami, FL, from November 2012 until January 2016. He retired from active duty after 45+ years of service to the nation as a United States Marine—both as an enlisted infantryman and infantry officer—on 1 February 2016.
Born and raised in Boston, he enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1970. He was released from active duty as a sergeant of infantry in 1972. Following graduation from the University of Massachusetts (Boston) in 1975, he was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps and assigned an infantry occupational specialty. In addition to attaining an MA degree from Georgetown University in National Security Affairs (1984), and an MS from the National Defense University in National Security (1995), his formal military education includes The Basic School (1976), the U.S. Army’s Advanced Infantry Officer’s Course (1981), the Marine Corp’s Command & Staff College (1991) and School for Advance Warfighting (1992), the National War College (1995), Capstone (2004), Joint Force Land Component Commander Course (2006), and Joint Flag Officer Warfighting Course (2007).
In his many assignments to the Fleet Marine Force as a company and field grade officer, General Kelly qualified in various infantry battalion staff assignments as well as commanding a number of infantry platoons and companies. He also commanded the 1st Light Armored Vehicle Battalion (LAR), Camp Pendleton, CA, as a major and lieutenant colonel. Finally, during formative years he was a proud “sea going” Marine serving aboard the aircraft carriers Forrestal and Independence (1979-1980).
General Kelly was also a trainer and an educator at The Basic School, Quantico, VA, first as the head of the Offensive Tactics Section, Tactics Group, and later as the Director of the Infantry Officer Course (1987-1990). After three years of instructing, shaping and mentoring some of the very finest young men and women this country produces to be Marine Officers, he then attended the Marine Corps Command & Staff College and the School for Advanced Warfare, both located at Quantico (1990-1992).
After completing two years in command of 1st LAR (1992-1994) and duty under instruction at the National War College, he was selected by the Commandant of the Marine Corps to serve as his personal liaison to the U.S. House of Representatives, Capitol Hill (1995-1999). Promoted to colonel while on the Hill he next served on joint duty as the Special Assistant to the Supreme Allied Commander (Generals Clarke & Ralston), Europe, Mons, Belgium.
Returning to the U.S in 2001 he was assigned to a third tour of duty at Camp Lejeune, now as the Assistant Chief of Staff for operations (G-3) with the 2nd Marine Division. Then the Trade Towers and pentagon were attacked. Selected for brigadier general that year he was transferred for duty with the 1st Marine Division as the assistant division commander assisting the commanding general in preparing the unit for the war we knew was coming. The majority of the two years with the division (2002-2004) was spent fighting in Iraq most notably participating in the “March Up” to Baghdad, then as Commander, “Task Force Tripoli,” that liberated the Baghdad – Tikrit – Baiji corridor of operations, then back with the division main executing counterinsurgency operations in al Anbar Province including the cities of Fallujah, Ramadi, Hit, Rawah, and al Qaim.
Returning home from the war zone General Kelly was assigned duties as the Legislative Assistant to the Commandant of the Marine Corps, and Deputy Assistant Legislative Assistant to the Secretary of the Navy (2004-2007). During this time in the pentagon General Kelly was promoted to major general and returned to Camp Pendleton, CA. He now assumed duties as the Commanding General, I Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward) deploying back to Iraq in early 2008 for a 12+ month tour in the west (al Anbar and western Ninewa Provinces). Almost immediately after his return in 2009 General Kelly was nominated, confirmed by the senate, and promoted to lieutenant general. He was privileged to take command of Marine Forces Reserve and Marine Forces North, New Orleans, LA (2009-2011). A second assignment as a lieutenant general brought him back to the pentagon as the Senior Military Assistant to Defense Secretaries Gates and Panetta until October 2012. Again confirmed for promotion he was subsequently promoted to the rank of general assuming command of United States Southern Command on November 19, 2012. General Kelly relinquished command on 12 January 2016 and transferred to the retired list on 1 February.
On 20 January 2017, having been previously confirmed by the U.S. Senate for the position, he assumed duties as the Secretary, Department of Homeland Security. On 31 July 2017 Secretary Kelly was asked by the president to assume the duties of the White House Chief-of-Staff, a position he held until January 2019.