The article about a news conference given this week by John F. Kelly, the White House chief of staff — in which he addressed President Trump’s phone call to the widow of a slain Army soldier, as well as the loss of his own son in Afghanistan — drew intense reader interest.
Among the more than 3,500 published comments were several from military families or readers who themselves have served. Despite the common connection, their reactions to Mr. Kelly’s speech were anything but unanimous. Some deplored his defense of the administration, while others insisted he was speaking as a true military man.
Here is a selection of their responses, edited and condensed for clarity.
‘I would want empathy. I would want compassion.’
My son is a sergeant in the U.S. Army, and my wife and I are as proud as hell.
We know what my son chose. We know the risks. He knows the risks. Yet, if he were to be killed in the line of duty, I would want empathy. I would want compassion. And if the president exhibited none of those things, I would expose his callousness as well.
Both Kelly and Trump exhibited little or no empathy or compassion. The fact the General Kelly visited the dead to console himself rather than consoling the survivors speaks volumes.
This is a very sad day. So sad, that I would urge young men and women — and their families — to think twice about joining the military, which has been so good to my son, given the callous leadership demonstrated by the commander in chief.
— blairga, in Buffalo
‘Exactly what he meant and exactly what is right.’
How low have we all gotten? The President said exactly what he meant and exactly what is right. When my husband left for the gulf war, through my tears and my fright I knew that he was doing exactly what he wanted to do — and that he needed to go, because he wanted to go. I was proud of him, and this woman should be proud of her son for doing what he wanted to do, knowing the risk. My grandson is now in the army because he knows what it means. He’s following his heart!
What’s so bad about commending that? Are we all so anti-Trump that we can’t ever acknowledge when he does something good and right? How sad.
— Fran, in New York, N.Y.
‘He can’t say that for anyone else.’
I served in combat with men killed. Some were doing what they wanted to do and some definitely weren’t. It is not up to an outsider, including the president, to state, “He knew what he was getting into” — as if that would be meaningful to the soldier’s wife and family. Kelly can say that about his own son, but he can’t say that for anyone else.
The only emotions Trump feels are satisfaction, when he is praised and fawned over, and irrational anger, when he is criticized. Kelly has politicized this issue and indirectly discredited the soldier’s wife, who is free to say whatever she pleases.
Thousands of parents and wives of soldiers killed in Vietnam would say, “This was a terrible waste and a betrayal by our government and several presidents.” A good portion of those 58,000 killed would hardly say, “This is what I signed up for.”
— Eugene Phillips, in Kentucky
‘My parents rest there.’
I and scores of friends do understand what it means to walk through Arlington seeking reassurance in a world gone mad. My parents rest there.
Lately we ask ourselves how on earth our country should have been taken over so very thoroughly by people who defend a man who lies every single day, who brags about himself every day, who has spent a lifetime grabbing women’s private parts, behaving like a cad to every person who has the temerity not to worship him, ruining small businessmen, and shaming his country.
Up until now, I did hope Kelly supported something other than this man. No one can walk among the stones of Arlington and believe those there died for a just country and still support a man who holds nothing sacred except for his own draft-dodging, women-debasing opportunistic self.
— Claire Green, in McLean, Va.
‘Valiant soldiers aren’t political.’
I appreciated every word spoken by Gen. Kelly. When I stated to my husband, a retired Army Colonel, that a portion of the statement Trump said was, “He knew what he signed up for,” his response was, “He did.”
Valiant soldiers aren’t political. They are practical, no-nonsense men and women who love their country, attack a challenge and promote our country’s safety. I wish we could find more than a couple of those patriots in the leadership of this country, on either side of the aisle. Furthermore, as to the hateful congresswoman: Show even an iota of dignity and class. Losing one’s son or daughter is not about race and hatred.
— Annabelle, in Huntington Beach, Calif.
‘Kelly is becoming a politician.’
Kelly is becoming a politician. Show me one you can trust. He said he was so upset, he had to go walk among the finest men ever to serve, for a good hour and a half, at Arlington Cemetery.
What a line. I think he could have left that bit out.
I served in the military, honorably, for eight years, but I think this was one big publicity stunt. Kelly is mad Wilson listened in on the call — but what was she supposed to do, jump out of the vehicle? Kelly might not have known that the congresswoman knew Sgt. Johnson and his family for years. He was involved in one of her programs. I am more likely to believe Congresswoman Wilson and Sgt. Johnson’s wife.
I understand some people are blinded by Kelly’s status as a former general and Gold Star family member, the latter of which I know he would not care to be. I think he is trying to clean up Trump’s mess and is using the military in the process.
— Chris, in Texas
‘Let him carry his own water.’
As the son of a World War II Marine, I have nothing but respect for those who have served this country — and I have a special respect for those, like Mr. Kelly, who have served and also lost children in military service.
I would, however, say one thing to Mr. Kelly on this issue. Mr. Trump is a man; let him carry his own water here. If every time Mr. Trump puts his foot in his mouth, someone else comes running to pull it out, Mr. Trump will never learn that it is better to keep his mouth shut if he doesn’t know how to comport himself — especially around grieving family members of fallen soldiers.
— Ryanhil, in Paris
‘General Kelly continues to impress me.’
General Kelly continues to impress me with his leadership. As an Army veteran myself, if someone had told my parents that I died doing “what I signed up to do,” I can’t imagine a similar reaction. It would have been truthful and a sincere reflection of my frame of mind. In fact it was the subject of many conversations with those I served with. President Trump definitely lacks the eloquence of General Kelly, and I think we have plenty to complain about on many matters. But for the Congresswoman to politicize and publicize this conversation is abhorrent.
— Aristotle, in Phoenix
‘No commander of mine would ever disrespect a Gold Star family.’
Seeing General Kelly sadly convinces me that this is not military I honorably served in. Because, when I served, no commander of mine would ever disrespect a Gold Star family or anyone else who honorably served our country by blindly accepting the word of a draft-dodging coward like Donald Trump.
Clearly, we have a military today whose “leadership” needs to go back to the basics, because we have too many politicized and compromised individuals like General Kelly who continue to ignore their first duty to the men and women who serve under them — to honor the service of those who put their life on the line for our country, with no exceptions, period.
— Mike M., in Lewiston, Me.
A ‘lack of empathy, understanding, honesty, and compassion.’
No one is perfect; I get that. But in these situations, a president — the commander in chief — should know what he has to say, and say it sincerely with true compassion, sympathy and understanding.
DJT’s lack of empathy, understanding, honesty, and compassion makes him unfit to hold the highest office in the land.
I served four years in military — in and during war. Words like “you signed up for this” were said to troops to emphasize their obligations and duties. No one in leadership would even dream of uttering these call-to-duty words to the grieving loved ones of dead comrades. If they did, and it became known, they’d be rightly reprimanded or demoted!
— MegaDucks, in the U.S.
‘There are no correct words to say.’
I have been a casualty officer, and there are no correct words to say. As General Kelly said, General Dunford, his friend, told him those same words that President Trump used.
— C C Daniels, in Fredericksburg, Va.
‘The statement sounds so flippant.’
My husband is a veteran who served in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. He was a mechanic, same as Sgt. Johnson, although on aircraft. If he had been killed in action, and the president — or anyone else, even my own mother — had called me within the days and weeks I was grieving my fresh loss and told me that he “knew what he got himself into,” I would be absolutely livid.
Of course every military member and every military family knows that there is a risk that the soldier, sailor, or airman could die. But the statement sounds so flippant, as if the family shouldn’t grieve because this was an expected possible outcome. It appears that the Johnson family heard it that way, too.
— Rose, in Seattle
‘The immediate family are not the only people devastated.’
Gen. Kelly’s conduct here is disgraceful and dishonorable.
I write this as a member of a proud military family. I am the wife of a Naval Academy graduate and former Navy pilot who served in Vietnam during the Vietnam War. I have spoken to my husband about Gen. Kelly’s actions.
How dare Gen. Kelly criticize Congresswoman Wilson, who was in the car with Sgt. Johnson’s family when the President called. She is grieving, too — she had a long personal relationship with Sgt. Johnson since he was a child, which is why she was invited by his family to be in the car when they went to the airport to meet his coffin. Surely Gen. Kelly knows that the immediate family are not the only people devastated by the death of one of our brave members of the military!
Unlike Gen. Kelly, the congresswoman heard what Trump said. She heard it because Sgt. Johnson’s widow, Myeshia Johnson, a pregnant 24-year old with two small children, put the call on the speakerphone. Mrs. Johnson was devastated because Trump didn’t even know Sgt. Johnson’s name, which is what Congresswoman Wilson stressed, not his incredibly tone-deaf comment that “he knew what he signed up for.”
This is the same Gen. Kelly who is not offended by Trump’s disgraceful attacks on John McCain and the Gold Star Khan family. Wow, just wow!
— CA Reader, in California