Obama selects Marine to head U.S. Southern Command

President Barack Obama has chosen to send a Marine to Miami to run U.S. military operations in Latin America and the Caribbean out of the Southern Command.

He’s Marine Corps Lt. Gen. John F. Kelly, who first enlisted in 1970 and saw his two sons follow in his footsteps to the Corps as well. His youngest, 1st Lt. Robert Michael Kelly, a 2003 Florida State University graduate, was killed in an explosion while leading Marines on a dismounted patrol in Afghanistan in 2010.

The Pentagon announced the selection of Kelly in a brief two-line statement Friday afternoon. Because the Senate has to confirm the nomination, as well as Kelly’s promotion to a four-star general, there was no immediate word on when he would succeed Air Force Gen. Douglas Fraser, the current commander.

Kelly, over six feet tall and in his 60s, comes to the job with an impressive résumé:

He’s currently senior military advisor to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, has served multiple deployments in Iraq and also worked as a Defense Department representative on Capitol Hill.

A senior Pentagon official called Kelly “a man with a warm heart, but you don’t want to meet him on the battlefield if you’re the enemy.”

Kelly has commanded troops in Fallujah, Iraq, the official said, and “at one time he had tens of thousands of Americans and Iraqi soldiers under his command” in Iraq.

Kelly is a New Englander, born and raised in Boston and a 1976 graduate of the University of Massachusetts. He joined the Marines before going to the university, served for two years as an enlisted infantryman out of Camp Lejeune, N.C., and left as a sergeant.

He got his commission after graduation from UMass and, according to his official Defense Department biography, served in Florida at least once — out of Mayport with and assignments to the carriers USS Forrestal and Independence.

Kelly is the former commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, based at Camp Pendleton, Calif. He led the unit in Iraq beginning in early 2008.

The Associated Press reported from Boston Saturday that Kelly was one of the most senior military officer to lose a child in the war in Afghanistan.

His 29-year-old son, 1st Lt. Robert M. Kelly was killed Nov. 9, 2010 in Helmand province.

He’s buried at Arlington National Cemetery outside Washington, D.C. Like his father, he started off as an enlisted Marine and was later commissioned, in his case after two tours in Iraq. The general’s elder son, then a Marine captain, was on hand at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to receive the fallen first lieutenant’s flag-draped coffin.

At the time of his son’s death, the general issued a poignant statement that said, in part:

“He went quickly and thank God he did not suffer. In combat that is as good as it gets, and we are thankful. We are a broken hearted but proud family. He was a wonderful and precious boy living a meaningful life.”

It was not immediately known if Kelly has previously served in the Caribbean and Latin America.

More than 1,000 Defense and other government employees work out of Southcom headquarters in Doral, which Kelly has been chosen to run, on a range of Defense projects from humanitarian relief operations to the detention center at Guantánamo.

Southcom also runs periodic regional training exercises that team up U.S. forces with foreign armies and navies that senior Pentagon officials have pointed to as a model for the future of a more strategic, downsized U.S. military force across the globe.

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