WASHINGTON — President-elect Donald Trump has settled on Gen. John F. Kelly, a retired four-star Marine general whose son was killed in combat in Afghanistan, as his choice for secretary of homeland security, placing defense of U.S. territory from terrorism in the hands of a seasoned commander with personal exposure to the costs of war.
Kelly, 66, who led the United States Southern Command, had a 40-year career in the Marine Corps, and led troops in intense combat in western Iraq. In 2003, he became the first Marine colonel since 1951 to be promoted to brigadier general while in active combat.
Trump, a person briefed on the decision said, has not yet formally offered the job to Kelly, in part because the general is out of the country this week. The president-elect plans to roll out the appointment next week, along with his remaining national security positions, including secretary of state.
In 2010, Kelly earned a painful distinction when his son, Lt. Robert Michael Kelly, was killed after stepping on a mine while leading a platoon in Afghanistan. Kelly became the highest-ranking military officer to lose a son or daughter in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Kelly has said little about that experience, but it played a role in his selection by Trump, according to people close to the Trump transition. Trump, his aides said, wanted people on his national security team who understood personally the hazards of sending Americans into combat.
Choosing a bereaved father could also help heal the rift from Trump’s clash in the summer with Khizr and Ghazala Khan, the Pakistani-American parents of Capt. Humayun Khan, who was killed in 2004 during the Iraq War. The Khans appeared on behalf of Hillary Clinton during the Democratic convention, and later came under sharp criticism by Trump.
Kelly was the commander of the United States Southern Command, a job in which he functioned as a commander-ambassador. Responsible for a sprawling area that encompasses 32 countries in the Caribbean, Central America and South America, the Southern Command is less combat-focused than other regional military commands. It has a reputation for emphasizing “soft power” over hard military might, and gets deeply involved in issues such as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, as well as programs to train local militaries.
Still, Kelly attracted notice while at the Southern Command for comments about the military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, which fell in his area of responsibility. He rejected criticism from human rights activists about the treatment of detainees, and said the program to force-feed prisoners undertaking hunger strikes was reasonable and humane. He also dismissed one argument cited by those who advocate closing the military prison at Guantánamo, saying it had not proven to be an inspiration to those taking up militant action.
He also made statements that questioned the Obama administration’s plans to open all combat jobs to women, saying the military would have to lower its physical standards to bring women into some roles.
“There will be great pressure, whether it’s 12 months from now, four years from now, because the question will be asked whether we’ve let women into these other roles, why aren’t they staying in those other roles?” he said to reporters in January, shortly before his retirement.
“If we don’t change standards,” Kelly added, “it will be very, very difficult to have any numbers — any real numbers come into the infantry, or the Rangers or the SEALs, but that’s their business.”