Retired USMC General and St. John’s Alumnus Reflects on Three Decades of Decorated Service

February 24, 2020

While touring the Veterans Success Center during a recent visit to St. John’s University’s Queens, NY, campus, retired US Marine Corps Brigadier General Kevin J. Killea ’88CBA met Luis Escobar, a Homeland Security major and fellow Marine who had deployed to Afghanistan. The pair, separated by at least two generations, but both members of two of the same families: St. John’s and the Marine Corps, discussed something only a veteran could understand—what it means to serve one’s country in harm’s way. 

“I am sure Luis would agree that, at the baseline, you want to represent everything the flag symbolizes,” Gen. Killea observed. “As your service evolves, it becomes more apparent to you what the responsibilities truly are, and what that means.” 

For as long as he could remember, Gen. Killea wanted to serve. The son of a World War II veteran, he was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps in March of 1988, and recently retired after 31 years of devoted service in various command and operational capacities. 

Most recently, he spent three years in command of Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, and before that was Chief of Staff for the commanding general of Combined Joint Task Force - Operation Inherent Resolve, leading a staff of more than 800 military, civilian, and contract personnel mobilized to combat the threat of ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

A graduate of the US Naval War College in Newport, RI, and the Industrial College of the Armed Forces (now known as the Dwight D. Eisenhower School for National Security and Resource Strategy) at the National Defense University, Washington, DC, Gen. Killea went to Flight School in Pensacola, FL, and was designated as a Naval Aviator in 1991, learning to fly the F/A-18 Hornet.

“My number one priority was to be the best at what the Marine Corps asked me to do—which was to fly the F/A-18, to know how to employ that aircraft to the edge of its envelope, and to be ready when called upon,” he said.

Gen. Killea described his years of service as a combination of operational tours, constant on-the-job training, and increasing command responsibilities.

“During your initial training, the history, culture, and reputation of different fighting forces becomes ingrained, and you realize that what you do is a continuation of their sacrifices, and what they did to put this country in the position it is in today.”

His career was marked by several operational tours in support of US initiatives in the Persian Gulf, Italy, and Japan. Promoted steadily through the ranks, he spent the last 10 years of his career in command positions, including Commander of Marine Aircraft Group 11 and Director, USMC Aviation and Weapons Systems Requirements.

His impressive decorations include the Defense Superior Service Medal, the Legion of Merit with Gold Star, the Meritorious Service Medal with Gold Star, and the Air Medal Strike/Flight Award.

Demonstrating a capacity for leadership is essential for promotion, Gen. Killea observed. “Whether you are an infantry officer or an aviator, it is all about progressing into positions where you have the responsibility for command.” 

Mentoring younger officers, imparting what he learned, and sharing a perspective developed over decades is perhaps the most rewarding takeaway from his years of service, Gen. Killea recalled. “Leading an entire air group of seven squadrons was such a blast. When I became a general officer, I realized how many people I could influence, mentor, and lead.” 

The Vincentian values he learned at St. John’s served him well throughout his entire military career.

“The values of service and education are not a magic formula,” he observed. “However, it is essential to keep them fresh and in the forefront of your actions and activities.”

Also a graduate of Chaminade High School in Mineola, NY, Gen. Killea stressed that both there and at St. John’s, he learned the importance of being accountable to himself and others. “When that dawns on you, everything else falls into place,” he said. “I was blessed to have great teachers and amazing opportunities. They served me well in my career.”