It’s one of the most heart-wrenching and somber functions of a commander in chief: calling or writing the grieving family of a fallen soldier.
But the normally private moment between the President and a bereaved citizen has turned into a public debacle for President Donald Trump.
Florida Democrat Rep. Frederica Wilson claimed the President told Myeshia Johnson, the widow of Sgt. La David T. Johnson — one of four US soldiers killed in Niger earlier this month — that “he knew what he signed up for, but I guess it still hurt.” Trump later tweeted that Wilson “totally fabricated” the story. The White House also issued a denial.
Trump had been criticized for not publicly mentioning the deaths of the four US soldiers until nearly two weeks after the Niger ambush.
What does a phone call or letter from the White House mean to the family of a fallen soldier?
For some, the high-level recognition of a service member’s sacrifice can bring a measure of comfort.
For others, it is a longstanding sacred ritual that offers little solace.
‘The worst thing I’ve ever been called is a Gold Star mom’
Sheila and Calvin Murphy lost their son, 22-year-old Army Spc. Etienne Murphy, in May when an armored vehicle he was traveling in rolled over in Syria. Trump has not called them.
“It doesn’t matter if I hear from the White House or not because it’s not really about a call or a letter,” Sheila Murphy said on Thursday, choking back tears.
“I just want people to remember my son — Spc. Etienne Murphy — and all the other Gold Star moms … all those who are grieving. Trust me, none of us want to be in this position. The worst thing I’ve ever been called is a Gold Star mom.”
Still, Sheila Murphy said she wrote Trump a letter. She thanked him for airstrikes in Syria and asked him to always remember her son’s sacrifice.
“Right now,” she said, “there is nothing that can help me.”
‘A moment I’ll never forget’
Paul Monti remembered the phone call he received from former President Barack Obama after the 2006 death of his son, Army Sgt. Jared Monti, in Afghanistan. He recounted his visit to the White House when his son was awarded the Medal of Honor in 2009.
“I observed two people, Barack Obama and Michelle Obama, who had a tremendous degree of compassion,” he said. “They treated my wife and I extremely well. They were extremely compassionate. … It’s a moment I’ll never forget.”
Obama called Monti to tell him about the Medal of Honor.
“He told me that the nation was very proud of my son and that he himself was very proud of my son and that he knew I was very proud of my son,” Monti said. “And I will never forget those words.”
Compassion and empathy are all a grieving family member wants to hear from the commander in chief, Monti said.
“Those words, well, you know, that ‘this is what he signed up for’ are not the words that she wants to hear at this time,” he said of what Trump reportedly told Johnson’s widow.
He added: “Becoming a gold star family member is not a thing anybody wants. It is a pain that never goes away. My son was killed 11 years ago. It’s like yesterday.”
‘He knew what he was getting into’
On Thursday, an emotional White House chief of staff John Kelly said he advised Trump on what to say before he called the families of the four fallen soldiers in Niger. He told reporters that he encouraged the President to offer similar words to what Gen. Joseph Dunford offered Kelly when his own son was killed in Afghanistan.
“He was doing exactly what he wanted to do when he was killed,” Kelly said, channeling Dunford’s words to him upon the death of Kelly’s son.
“He knew what he was getting into by joining that 1%. He knew what the possibilities were because we were at war. And when he died he was surrounded by the best men on this earth, his friends. That’s what the President tried to say to the four families the other day.”
Kelly addressed the media after Trump suggested that reporters ask his chief of staff, a retired general, whether Obama called him after his son’s death.
Kelly said he was “stunned” by what Wilson told reporters after she listened in on Trump’s call to Johnson’s widow, Myeshia.
Wilson, who heard the call via speakerphone in a car, told CNN on Wednesday that Trump didn’t know the name of the service member. She said the widow “broke down” after the call.
Cowanda Jones-Johnson, a family member who raised Johnson, said Wilson’s account of the call between Trump and Johnson’s widow was “very accurate.”
‘Put someone else in charge of condolence calls’
Michelle Deford, whose son was killed in Iraq in 2004, told CNN that Kelly appeared to be “trying to get his boss out of a jam.”
She suggested the White House “put someone else in charge of condolence calls to Gold Star families.” She said she received a letter from former President George W. Bush after her son’s death. She later met Obama at a White House event for Gold Star families.
“I just think that you can do so much more damage, because those thoughts will stay in your mind the rest of your life,” she said of Trump’s message to Johnson’s widow.
“You’ll always remember that. It is clearly the worst day of your life.”
She was told to stay by her phone but Trump never called
After US Army Sgt. Jonathon Michael Hunter, 23, was killed in a suicide attack in Afghanistan in August, his wife, Whitney Hunter, said she was told to expect a phone call from President Trump. She was told to stay by her phone for a couple of days. Trump never called.
“I don’t like that I was told that I would receive the phone call but then I never did,” she said.
She was “extremely honored” to meet with Vice President Mike Pence at the transfer of her husband’s remains, and said he was a “very genuine human being” and had “shared his condolences.”
There was no letter from the White House after her husband’s convoy was struck by a suicide car bomber, she said.
“I truly, genuinely feel that hearing from the President at this point or at any point … it’s not really going to go either way for me as far as making me feel better,” she said.
‘Just like talking to a friend’
The mother of a 22-year-old Army sergeant killed in Afghanistan in June told CNN that the condolence call she received from Trump was “just like talking to a friend.” She also met the vice president.
“It was amazing,” Tina Palmer, mother of Army Cpl. Dillon Baldridge, said Wednesday. “Not knowing what to expect, it kind of took me by surprise. He was very genuine, genuinely thankful for my son and his service.”
Palmer, who is divorced from her son’s father, Chris Baldridge, added, “I didn’t feel like it was forced or scripted or something that he felt like he had to do. It was just like talking to a friend.”
Her son understood the risks of military service, she said.
“I can’t speak for other people, but, personally, I know my son knew what he signed up for,” Palmer said, referring to Trump’s remarks to Johnson’s widow.
“That doesn’t offend me. That just gives me more respect for what he did. … He knew the danger and risks. He believed firmly in what he was doing in protecting this country. They know what they’re signing up for.”
Baldridge was killed by an Afghan police officer.
The President’s check is in the mail
Chris Baldridge, Dillon’s father, said he had a different experience with Trump.
He told the Washington Post that Trump called him weeks after his son was killed. During the call, the Post reported, Trump offered him $25,000 and said he would instruct his staff to establish an online fundraising page for the family. Trump didn’t immediately follow through.
“‘I’m going to write you a check out of my personal account for $25,000,’ and I was just floored,” Baldridge told the Post of his conversation with Trump.
“I could not believe he was saying that, and I wish I had it recorded because the man did say this. He said, ‘No other president has ever done something like this,’ but he said, ‘I’m going to do it.’ ”
On Wednesday, four months later, the White House said the check was in the mail.