(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE)
The photo of a young Army widow clutching the flag-draped casket of her husband is daunting. Myeshia Johnson’s pain seemed to run so deep that it pierced her soul.
She had been called upon to perform a duty that only the truest of American patriots, our Gold Star families, must do — claim the body of a fallen soldier upon his return home.
On this day, it could not have mattered to the pregnant mother of two small children that Sgt. La David Johnson had joined the Army of his own free will. Perhaps the soldier did realize that there was a chance he could be killed in an ambush while serving in Niger.
This was not the day to remind his wife of that. Yet, it is what Donald Trump did in a phone call to Johnson while she rode in a car to the airport in Miami to retrieve her husband’s remains.
As it turns out, the words were not even his own.
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly would have us forget about Johnson’s grief and reserve our empathy for Trump.
In a rare appearance before the news media on Thursday, Kelly reminded us that the president is, after all, inexperienced in making condolence calls to Gold Star families.
Kelly implored Americans to understand how difficult it was for someone who has never worn the uniform, who has never been in combat, to make such a call. Some presidents send a letter instead, he said. But Trump chose to call.
Our president is incapable of speaking from the heart, though. So Kelly, a retired four-star general who lost his own son in Afghanistan, stood by the president’s side and fed the words to him.
Perhaps the general found it comforting when his best friend and casualty officer told Kelly that his fallen son was doing exactly what he wanted to do when he was killed and that he knew what he was getting into.
Myeshia Johnson clearly did not feel the same. She is said to have been devastated. In the brief conversation, Trump repeatedly referred to the soldier as “your guy,” a signal to the wife that the president didn’t even know her husband’s name.
A decent and caring person would have readily acknowledged his mistake and offered an apology. But not Trump. He acted like a coward and sent his most fearless attack dog out to deflect the issue.
The problem wasn’t what Trump said to the grieving widow, Kelly intimated. It was the fact that a Florida congresswoman, an “empty barrel” as he referred to her, spoke out about it.
U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson had been in the car with Johnson that day when the call came. She heard every word and was appalled that a president would speak to a grieving widow in that manner. She found it offensive and disrespectful, and she said so publicly.
Kelly was so anxious to discredit her that he mischaracterized what Wilson said in 2015 at a dedication of a new FBI field office in Miami.
In Kelly’s view, it is Wilson — the messenger — that Americans should take aim at. She had overheard Trump’s conversation with Myeshia Johnson and had the gall to say what she thought about it.
In response to the uproar, Trump tweeted, “Democrat Congresswoman totally fabricated what I said to the wife of a soldier who died in action (and I have proof). Sad!”
Kelly revealed during the news conference, albeit unintentionally, that Trump had lied. What Wilson said was true. Trump had repeated in the telephone call exactly what Kelly had told him to say.
The fact that he works for a man who is both a coward and a liar is not what concerns Kelly, though. He is most troubled that details of the telephone conversation got out.
Kelly said he is stunned that the things that were sacred in our country when he was growing up are no longer sacred. Most Americans are stunned, too.
“Women were sacred, looked upon with great honor,” Kelly said. “But that’s obviously not the case anymore.”
He could have added that his boss, the president of the United States, has contributed immensely to the growing irreverence for women.
Religion seems to be gone as well, Kelly said. He should have pointed out that no president ever has been so determined to undermine religious freedom in America as Trump.
As for the sanctity of Gold Star families, “that left in the convention over the summer,” Kelly said.
Kelly did not mention Trump’s brutal verbal attack on the parents of Capt. Humayun Khan after they appeared at the Democratic National Convention. But we remember Trump’s attack on the Muslim-American family well. His vile, disrespectful verbiage directed at the Khans was an affront to every military family that has lost a loved one.
This time, he once again showed a troubling lack of understanding regarding the sacrifices Gold Star families make for their country.
Trump disrespected the memory of Sgt. La David Johnson by telling his wife that the soldier knew what he was getting into when he joined the Army.
Kelly drove the knife deeper when he said the soldier was exactly where he wanted to be, with exactly the people he wanted to be with, when his life was taken. If the general isn’t careful, Trump will carry him into the gutter, just has he has everyone else who tries to defend him.
Kelly knows better than anyone that there are many reasons our brave men and women enlist in the military. Wanting to die on field in a foreign land far away from home never has been one of them.
If Sgt. Johnson had a choice in his final moments of life, he undoubtedly would have chosen to be at home in Miami, surrounded by the people he loved most — his wife, his two young children and the baby he will never know.