By Lisa Ferdinando DoD News, Defense Media Activity
WASHINGTON, January 8, 2016 — The role of U.S. Southern Command is unique among the combatant commands, Southcom’s outgoing commander said at a Pentagon news conference today.
Marine Corps Gen. John F. Kelly, who is retiring after more than four decades of service, shared his thoughts on Southcom’s mission.
Southcom is responsible for all Defense Department security cooperation in the 45 nations and territories of Central and South America and the Caribbean Sea, an area of 16 million square miles.
"It's all about broadening and deepening partnerships down there, to say the least," Kelly said. "I will tell you that the partners we have in Latin America and the Caribbean like the United States and want to be associated with the United States."
Kelly added there are few countries that "didn’t get the memo" about democracy and human rights, but added that "some of that is even turning around."
Southcom works with allies in the region to deliver advice, education and assistance, Kelly said. Other priorities are countering transnational organized crime, counterterrorism, drug interdiction, building partner capacity response, and detainee operations.
Drug Interdiction Important Mission
"We've had a tremendous year of interdiction of cocaine," the general said. "The way we've partnered with various nations has allowed us to interdict ...191 metric tons of cocaine, and that's after it left Latin America."
The No. 1 partner in fighting drug trafficking is Colombia, Kelly told reporters. He said Colombia interdicted hundreds of metric tons of cocaine before the drugs left the country, and eradicated tens of thousands of coca plantation bushes and hundreds of cocaine labs.
The United States needs to stay involved in the process of helping Colombia, he said.
"Let's not throw away a success story,” he added. “We have to stand and continue Plan Colombia, in my opinion, for another 10 years."
Proud of Service Members Serving at Guantanamo
Kelly also outlined detainee operations at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, another Southcom mission.
"My mandate from the president, through the secretary of defense, is to make sure that we're in accordance with all laws and regulations that the detainees as long as they are down there are treated well, treated humanely, and well taken care of medically and otherwise," he said.
"We do that superbly. I'm very, very, very proud of my soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines that are at Guantanamo that execute this mission as well as they do," he said.
Gold Star Father
The sacrifices of his own service are not the only ones Kelly has endured. His son, Marine Corps 1st Lt. Robert Kelly, was killed in action in 2010 in Afghanistan.
"It doesn’t matter how they die,” he said. “To lose a child, ... I can't imagine anything worse than that. When you lose one in combat, in my opinion, there's a pride that goes with it. … He didn’t have to be there doing what he was doing. He wanted to be there. He volunteered."
When Gold Star families ask him if it was worth it, the general said, he tells them that what is important is that the person who died thought it was worth it. "That's the only opinion that counts," he said.
Those who choose to serve, whether in the military or as police or federal agents, are "special people" who are doing what they wanted to do, and are with the people they wanted to be with when they lost their lives, Kelly said.
"Gold Star families are special, to say the least," he said.
The one thing the families would ask, he said, is that "the cause for which their son or daughter fell be carried through to a successful end."
Navy Vice Adm. Kurt W. Tidd, assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of staff, will receive his fourth star and succeed Kelly as Southcom commander Jan. 14.