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During a Memorial Day address aboard the aircraft carrier Intrepid in New York City, Marine Gen. John Kelly helped his audience to understand exactly what it was to lose a loved one in war.

Kelly, the head of U.S. Southern Command and one of the Corps' three four-star generals, is also a Gold Star father. His son, Marine 1st Lt. Robert Kelly, was killed Nov. 9, 2010, while conducting combat operations in Sangin, Afghanistan.

In a moving and personal speech on Monday, Kelly recounted the emotional journey each Gold Star family undergoes, beginning with the dreaded knock at the door from a military casualty assistance officer.

"The minute the door opened and a family member sees him framed in the doorway they know … they know without being told … before he uttered his first words … they knew," Kelly said, according to a draft of his prepared remarks.

From there, Kelly said, reactions are varied. Some families collapse in their grief while others attempt to deny that the worst is really happening, he said. It's a grief, he described as unexpectedly physical, "unbearable to the mind, and agonizing to the heart."

Families then must wait as the military completes its formal process and sends the remains of their loved ones home from the battlefield. Through all of this — and forever — the pain of loss endures, Kelly said.

In the midst of the sadness, he said, Gold Star families can be proud of their loved one's service and sacrifice.

"Proud that by this one very personal decision — to serve a cause higher than themselves regardless of the outcome to them personally — their fallen loved one gave answer to two questions that have over the centuries defined the dedication of free and righteous men and women in the fight against wickedness: 'If not me, who? If not now, when?'" he said.

Kelly himself had visited many hospital beds of wounded troops and spoken to dozens of Gold Star families before he lost his own son, he said.

"I have been ... asked if it was worth the life of someone they brought into the world, raised and nurtured so lovingly, and so much looked forward to seeing grow and find wonderful husbands and wives, and give them grandchildren to spoil," he said. "...My sense then was it is inconceivable for anyone to understand that has not had his own heart pierced with such sadness. I learned I was right."

He asked himself the same question many times, he recalled, in the crushing aftermath of his son's death. The day the family buried him at Arlington Cemetery, he felt he got his answer. It only mattered, he said, that his son had chosen to fight in Afghanistan, and that he had determined that "it was worth it to him to risk everything — even his life — in the service of his country."

"So in spite of the terrible emptiness that is in a corner of my heart and I now know will be there until I see him again, and the corners of the hearts of everyone who ever knew him, we are proud … so very proud," Kelly said. "Was it worth his life? It's not for me to say. He answered the question for me."

Kelly saluted the fallen from every military branch and also honored the New York City first responders who had given their lives to save others after the Sept. 11, 2001, World Trade Center attacks. America would remain the "Land of the free," he said, "so long as we never run out of tough young Americans who are willing to look beyond their own self-interest and comfortable lives, and go into the darkest and most dangerous places on earth to hunt down, and kill, those who would do us harm."

Read all of Kelly's speech here.

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