Afghanistan War (2001- )

Fallen Troops’ Families Tell of Meeting Presidents: Sympathy and Sometimes Discomfort

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Families of slain service members who have had exchanges with past presidents decried the timing of Mr. Trump’s phone call, which they said came at what was most likely one of Mrs. Johnson’s most vulnerable moments. And while a number of relatives said they were subject to verbal punches dressed up as sympathy, none came from the presidents who sent their sons and daughters to war.

When Mr. Bush called the Manion family two weeks after Lieutenant Manion’s death, there were no verbal miscues. The president “was sincere and heartfelt,” his brother Ryan Manion said in a telephone interview. “He didn’t say anything stupid.”

This year, 11 American service members have been killed in Afghanistan and 14 in Iraq. Seventeen sailors were killed in accidents involving two Navy warships, the John S. McCain and the Fitzgerald. A member of the Navy SEALs was killed in Somalia and four American soldiers in the Niger ambush. Mr. Trump said this week that he had called “every family of somebody that’s died, and it’s the hardest call to make.”


President George W. Bush with Sgt. David Gardner, who was wounded in Iraq, and his family, in 2007. Credit Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

But several families said they had not heard from the president.

“I was told I would receive a call and I never did,” said Whitney Hunter, whose husband, Sgt. Jonathon Hunter, was killed in Afghanistan in August. An Army official who had spoken to the White House had relayed to her that she should expect a call over the summer. By Wednesday, Ms. Hunter said, she had not even received a letter from Mr. Trump.

“It’s not a necessity, but it’s just good human nature for condolences to be shared,” said Ms. Hunter, who noted that Vice President Mike Pence had met with her at an Air Force base in Delaware. “Even though it is the president and I know there are pressing world issues, my husband died for our country.”

For families of the fallen, meetings that do happen can be a blur, especially if they are soon after the death of their loved one.

Dianne G. Johnson, whose husband was killed during a 1980 mission to rescue American hostages in Iran, said she believed that President Jimmy Carter had simply expressed his grief during a meeting at Arlington National Cemetery.

“At that particular point, there wasn’t a whole lot I could talk about,” Ms. Johnson said from her home in Georgia, where officials dedicated a bridge this month in honor of her husband, Staff Sgt. Dewey Johnson of the Marines.

“It was very emotional,” she said of her meeting with Mr. Carter. “I think I said thank you.”

She later visited the White House, where she met President Ronald Reagan and the elder George Bush, then vice president. Mr. Reagan, she said, also shared his sorrow. But Mr. Bush, she recalled, had a personal touch.

“He said he was sorry, and he said he and I had something in common,” she said. “And I thought, ‘Oh dear, what is this?’ He said, ‘You and I cry when they play the national anthem.’”

Cpl. Joshua A. Sams was still in an intensive care unit in 2012 when President Barack Obama awarded him a Purple Heart. A Marine scout sniper, Corporal Sams lost his legs and two fingers on his right hand from a roadside bomb during a patrol in southern Afghanistan.

On painkillers and other drugs, Corporal Sams does not remember all of the details, though he can recall the pistol-strapped Secret Service officers running in to announce the president’s arrival and that Mr. Obama spent more time beside his bed than he expected.

“He pinned the medal on and he said something along the lines that he was proud of me and the nation was proud of the sacrifices I had made,” Corporal Sams said. “As much as I didn’t care for his policies, he was a good human being.”

By contrast, another veteran told of his difficulty connecting with Mr. Obama. Dustin E. Kirby, a former Navy corpsman who was shot through the mouth in Iraq in 2006, met Mr. Obama in 2009 after the president gave a speech at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.

The Marine Corps had gathered about 20 wounded Marines and sailors, Mr. Kirby said, then still on active duty, and Mr. Obama spoke with each briefly.

Mr. Kirby said he was not opposed to Mr. Obama and did not judge him, but he did not enjoy the interaction, in part because his unit had forced him to attend, but also because Mr. Obama seemed distant. “He made me feel like there was literally an ocean between the two of us,” Mr. Kirby said.

A few years later, an acquaintance arranged for Mr. Kirby and his family to meet President George W. Bush in his presidential library. Mr. Bush, he said, greeted the family personally, served coffee and sat for a long visit. The president made a point of saying he was responsible for what had happened, as it had been his decision to send troops to Iraq.

Mr. Kirby left impressed. “President Bush cared about every single one of us,” he said. “He did. He cared. And I saw sincerity in his face.”

Mr. Trump has also had comforting interactions with families. Ardie Wright, the father of a Green Beret who died in Niger this month alongside Sergeant Johnson, said Mr. Trump called him on Tuesday and listened to him talk about his son, Staff Sgt. Dustin M. Wright, during a conversation that lasted about 20 minutes.

“He was great on the phone,” Mr. Wright said in a telephone interview. “I needed him to listen, and he listened, and that’s all I could ask.”

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Wendy Pettit

Wendy Pettit is a writer for NYT and writes for other publications on her spare time. She lives in Chicago with her husband and her dog Zuko.

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