Sunday, October 9, 2011


A Few Good Men with Tom Cruise in the only convincing role he ever played and Jack Nicholson at his finest is an iconic movie to many of us of a certain generation.

There is a scene when Nicholson, as Colonel Jessup, Commander of the Marine guard at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba, explains to Cruise, who is prosecuting a trial at which Jessup is a witness in the loudest possible terms that he really does not want the truth. The remarkable dialogue has to be heard more than once to be fully appreciated. First because of the way Nicholson delivers it, but more importantly for the mixed emotions it evokes about the truth of what he says. At its root, it is an explanation of what it is like for those that defend the country in the dark unknown way it is defended everyday that none of us knows much about and would rather not think about very often. As Colonel Jessup says, “You don’t want to know the truth. You can’t handle the truth.” No we don’t and no we can’t.

Last month, a good man died who did that sort of thing. For years he labored in the obscure nether world of counterintelligence, a place even murkier than the Special Forces that few of us know of, most of us admire, and perhaps some wish didn’t have to exist. He stood watch while we slept. He kept us safe. He was proud that no harm came to the country he loved on his watch. We are better for men like him. They give their careers without reservation to their country, their agency, and us, whom they serve for a paltry sum. What they get is not about money, it is their pride in a job done well done and a world made safer by their efforts. What they ask in return is a nod of approving satisfaction from those who know what they do and how well they do it. He did it well, better than most, it is said, good enough to come to understand how the Russian KGB communicated with its agents here in the United States during the Cold War, before the Wall fell, before we all became “friends.” He found that code not because he was lucky but because he methodical, dedicated and good.

 Years later, he helped uncover a suspected State Department spy and suspicion fell on him when he eluded capture. He was accused of being a “mole,” followed 24 hours a day for several years, his family harassed, his phone tapped, and his reputation and career nearly ruined. He was removed from his job he loved while “under investigation,” because the politically appointed egos in another agency of the government could not accept that maybe one of “theirs” could have done that which they accused him.

The parochial interests, the turf wars, and the extraordinary egos that make this fragile democracy so hard to govern and defend made his life hell. We have all heard of it but in this case it was a personal example as to how it worked and it was not a pretty sight. Yet he endured. Two years later when he was cleared, he went back to doing what he loved. He didn’t sue anyone. He did his job and then retired. He told a chilling story, of agency heads who mistrusted each other, the information they were given, and when they learned their mistake refused even an apology until those who ruled their lives ordered them to give him one.

He will be remembered by many for his extraordinary work and his extraordinary story. He will be remembered by others as a kind, loving, and giving man, father, and grandfather.

 To another band of men, he is remembered as one we spent four years with in College in the early 1960’s in an idyllic place in the hills of northern Vermont. He was a practical joker without peer, which earned him the nickname “Needle” which followed him the rest of his life. He was friend, and a classmate of the best kind. He and I shared a room for four years. He found a way to be at my father’s funeral and was always there when I needed him. I danced at his wedding and I promptly lost track of him after his second posting in the Air Force where he began to learn the craft of counterintelligence. I saw his image on my television when he appeared on “60 Minutes” and told the story of the horrible mistake that nearly ruined his otherwise impeccable career.

We were back in touch fitfully the past several years both always assuming there would be time for that when we were less busy.

Alas, that time is gone. Brian J. Kelly, a quiet American who stood guard with so many others unknown to us so that we could sleep under the blanket of freedom we take for granted is gone now. He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery with so many other quiet heroes of his time.

Those who knew him in those halcyon days so long ago have our disparate memories of Brian as a roommate, a classmate, a world-class practical joker, a class historian, and as a fine man.

Most of all he was a friend.

 The full interview from “60 Minutes” can be found here:


  1. I'm sorry for your loss of a dear friend. He sounds like the epitome of a good man. GMB

  2. Whenever we lose a dear friend or companion, it's easy to dwell on loss. Perhaps our time is better spent rejoicing in having had the good fortune to meet such people. Life is so short. Remembering Brian Kelly must be filled with good feelings for you. He sounds remarkable. Mike E.

  3. Michael, what a fine and stirring tribute to your friend, and one of our nation's best friends. Thank you for writing it. I am the better for having read it.