For a disciplined military man who has made a living following and giving orders, Lt. Gen. Thomas Kelly loves mixing it up.
When a reporter asked the ruddy-faced three-star general during a Pentagon briefing whether he had any information on reports that Saddam Hussein had executed his chief military men, Kelly responded, "we don't know."He added, "I would say that being a general in his army is probably not a growth industry right now."
Kelly relished the laughter and threw in, "and I would also say that being a Saddam Hussein is not a growth industry right now." (More laughter).
On another occasion, when skeptical reporters were bugging him to estimate the number of Iraqi troops killed, he responded, "The number that I can come up with (for) you is one Iraqi army destroyed."
Despite an occasional awkward phrase or absence of nouns or pronouns in his syntax, the 58-year-old's dry wit and solid frame made him a telegenic figure in a television Gulf War that lasted 42 days.
Only Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, 56, commander of Operation Desert Storm, surpassed the popularity bestowed on Kelly, the director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff who has received hundreds of fan letters for his bravura performances.
Kelly, who retires at the end of the month, will receive an annual pension of $67,400, which is three-quarters of his current salary. In addition, he has already begun reaping dividends for his candor, knowledge and wit.
Beauticians and barbers groups, insurance companies and a window shade association are among the 36 organizations willing to pay to hear the general preach the glories of democracy, the tyranny of dictatorship and the courage of young men and women who freely give their lives to remain free.
Two corporations also have expressed interest in making him a board member and the networks are talking to him about a consulting deal. Kelly even has an agent.
Kelly, who graduated from Temple University with a degree in journalism, said he knew since he was three years old that he wanted to be a soldier. Born in 1932, Kelly was a child when generals named Eisenhower, Bradley, MacArthur and Patton graced the world stage.
After 34 years of humble service (and six weeks of worldwide exposure) Kelly said it's time to "cash in," before the popularity fades. His message for Americans is reminiscent of Ronald Reagan's "morning in America" theme delivered in 1984.
The "prophets of doom" who have made a living telling Americans what's wrong with their educational system, their military and their government, will be replaced by the pride brigade, which says, hey, things aren't so bad. In fact, they're pretty good.
"I think there's been a lot of pent up pride in America," Kelly said from his office tucked inside the heavily guarded Joint Staff complex in the Pentagon. "America is a very self-critical nation," he added, a notion that Saddam mistook for divisiveness.
"I think that's one thing that tricked Saddam Hussein into thinking that he had a chance. He listened to the debate in the United States and didn't understand that we do that all the time," Kelly said.
But Kelly has not always been so sanguine about public discourse. In 1967 he led young men through the jungles of Vietnam, while confusion and animosity raged at home.
"It just struck me deeply that these kids were making those kinds of sacrifices and nobody seemed to care," he said.
Yet Kelly said at a Pentagon briefing not long ago that no one was ever impolite to him when he returned to his native Philadelphia in his uniform.
Kelly, Schwarzkopf and other generals of Operation Desert Storm were majors during Vietnam and actually fought the North Vietnamese, day in, day out.
When asked to reflect on experiences that he would call "defining moments" in his life, Kelly responded, "combat burns itself into your memory," and then proceeded to talk about Vietnam.
"All of us think that we left Vietnam about a week and a half ago," he said. "It's been 22 years for me."
During the Tet offensive in which thousands were killed, Kelly led a squadron of 300 troops. Over a 4-month period, 52 were killed and 225 were wounded.
"There were specific days of Tet when, frankly, I wondered what the hell I was doing there," he said.
Vietnam burned another lesson into the lives of people like Kelly and Schwarzkopf.
"If you don't have an objective then there's no sense in fighting a war," Kelly said. "And we didn't have one in Vietnam. We had sort of a desire to hold back this monolithic horde that really didn't exist in the first place."
But Kelly, who said, "you see more love on a battlefield than you ever will in a church," remains cautious about military force.
"The most important thing to remember, I think, is that the military solution always seems like the simple solution," he said. "The military solution is never the simple solution. It's the most difficult of all solutions. It means you failed some other way. I think that lesson needs to be reinforced at every chance we get."