Video of the Day: John Kelly sets media straight on Rep. Wilson and condolence calls to military families

Video of the Day: John Kelly sets media straight on Rep. Wilson and condolence calls to military families
(Image: Screen grab of CNN video, YouTube)

This video doesn’t need much introduction.  Even if you haven’t been following it, you also haven’t been able to get away from the crass politicization of a condolence call made by President Trump to one of the four Special Forces soldiers killed in an ISIS ambush in Niger on 4 October.

Trump called all four of the families, but Rep. Frederica Wilson , D-FL, was present and listening in on his call to Myeshia Johnson, the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson.  (The other soldiers killed in the same attack were Staff Sgt. Bryan C. Black, Staff Sgt. Jeremiah W. Johnson, and Staff Sgt. Dustin M. Wright.)

Rep. Wilson came out after the call to publicly excoriate Trump for his choice of words, implying that when Trump said Sgt. Johnson “knew what he was signing up for,” Trump was being callous and disrespectful about the young soldier’s sacrifice.

Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., told NBC Miami Tuesday night that she heard the president’s comment to Sgt. La David T. Johnson’s widow, Myeshia, on a speakerphone as they were traveling together in a car to meet his body.

“He said, ‘But you know he must’ve known what he signed up for,'” Wilson recounted Trump saying more than once during the minutes-long call to express his sympathy.

“Everyone knows when you go to war you could possibly not come back alive, but you don’t remind a grieving widow of that,” Wilson said. “That’s so insensitive.”

“He didn’t even remember his name,” Wilson recalled Myeshia Johnson telling her after hanging up with the president, the congresswoman told MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Wednesday.

“That’s the hurting part,” Wilson said.

Trump tweeted afterward that he didn’t say what Wilson claimed — which in the literal sense was inaccurate, but, as Kelly clarified today, is accurate in the sense that Wilson’s prejudicial construction of it is not what Trump meant.

I supposed from the first that Trump may have said words similar to Wilson’s account.  But I also figured the words meant “Your husband was a brave American who knew he was signing on for the toughest job, and it’s the more honor and credit to him that he did so.”

A reader at Breitbart (who goes by Son_of_the_Republic_of_Texas) put it in one of the best ways I’ve seen:

The President was eulogizing a fallen soldier; he was praising the man’s Valor in bravely volunteering to help despite knowing the mortal danger involved.

Exactly.  I might not use this antagonistic wording, but I can understand the sentiment the reader went on to express:

Only someone in an extreme mental state or a scumbag leftist who is projecting their own lack of respect, could overlook the entire point of offering condolences in the first place, and hear:

“Oh well, he asked for it.”

Retired Marine Corps General John Kelly, now Trump’s chief of staff, clearly had a similar reaction.  Other than one additional comment, I’ll let Kelly’s — video and transcript below — stand on their own.

Although I never escorted a shipmate home from a combat zone, I did have the solemn honor of escorting one home from a non-combat death.  This evening (Thursday), I heard Michael Pregent on a panel with Charles Payne on Fox Business News, speaking about a transport flight he was on that picked up a fallen comrade’s remains during a stop on the way to Germany.  The assorted passengers were on their way out of Afghanistan, and had reason to relax and try to distract themselves during the trip.  But as soon as that comrade’s remains were loaded on board — and none of them knew the fallen soldier personally — they fell silent, and kept a watchful and respectful demeanor, maintaining “overwatch,” for the rest of the trip.

I know how they felt, because it’s how I felt — even flying commercial in my dress blues, on a full, busy flight inside the United States.  There’s a limit to what you can do, but if you can watch over your shipmate and lift the burden on the family even a little, you do it.  I think General Kelly spoke for all of us in the heartfelt comments he made today.

Transcript by Matt Vespa at Townhall:

JOHN F. KELLY: Well, thanks a lot. And it is a more serious note, so I just wanted to perhaps make more of a statement than an — give more of an explanation in what amounts to be a traditional press interaction.

Most Americans don’t know what happens when we lose one of soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, our Coast Guardsmen in combat. So let me tell you what happens:

Their buddies wrap them up in whatever passes as a shroud, puts them on a helicopter as a routine, and sends them home. Their first stop along the way is when they’re packed in ice, typically at the airhead. And then they’re flown to, usually, Europe where they’re then packed in ice again and flown to Dover Air Force Base, where Dover takes care of the remains, embalms them, meticulously dresses them in their uniform with the medals that they’ve earned, the emblems of their service, and then puts them on another airplane linked up with a casualty officer escort that takes them home.

A very, very good movie to watch, if you haven’t ever seen it, is “Taking Chance,” where this is done in a movie — HBO setting. Chance Phelps was killed under my command right next to me, and it’s worth seeing that if you’ve never seen it.

So that’s the process. While that’s happening, a casualty officer typically goes to the home very early in the morning and waits for the first lights to come on. And then he knocks on the door; typically a mom and dad will answer, a wife. And if there is a wife, this is happening in two different places; if the parents are divorced, three different places. And the casualty officer proceeds to break the heart of a family member and stays with that family until — well, for a long, long time, even after the internment. So that’s what happens.

[Who] are these young men and women? They are the best 1 percent this country produces. Most of you, as Americans, don’t know them. Many of you don’t know anyone who knows any one of them. But they are the very best this country produces, and they volunteer to protect our country when there’s nothing in our country anymore that seems to suggest that selfless service to the nation is not only appropriate, but required. But that’s all right.

Who writes letters to the families? Typically, the company commander — in my case, as a Marine — the company commander, battalion commander, regimental commander, division commander, Secretary of Defense, typically the service chief, commandant of the Marine Corps, and the President typically writes a letter.

Typically, the only phone calls a family receives are the most important phone calls they could imagine, and that is from their buddies. In my case, hours after my son was killed, his friends were calling us from Afghanistan, telling us what a great guy he was. Those are the only phone calls that really mattered.

And yeah, the letters count, to a degree, but there’s not much that really can take the edge off what a family member is going through.

So some Presidents have elected to call. All Presidents, I believe, have elected to send letters. If you elect to call a family like this, it is about the most difficult thing you could imagine. There’s no perfect way to make that phone call.

When I took this job and talked to President Trump about how to do it, my first recommendation was he not do it because it’s not the phone call that parents, family members are looking forward to. It’s nice to do, in my opinion, in any event.

He asked me about previous Presidents, and I said, I can tell you that President Obama, who was my Commander-in-Chief when I was on active duty, did not call my family. That was not a criticism. That was just to simply say, I don’t believe President Obama called. That’s not a negative thing. I don’t believe President Bush called in all cases. I don’t believe any President, particularly when the casualty rates are very, very high — that Presidents call. But I believe they all write.

So when I gave that explanation to our President three days ago, he elected to make phone calls in the cases of four young men who we lost in Niger at the earlier part of this month. But then he said, how do you make these calls? If you’re not in the family, if you’ve never worn the uniform, if you’ve never been in combat, you can’t even imagine how to make that call. I think he very bravely does make those calls.

The call in question that he made yesterday — or day before yesterday now — were to four family members, the four fallen. And remember, there’s a next-of-kin designated by the individual. If he’s married, that’s typically the spouse. If he’s not married, that’s typically the parents unless the parents are divorced, and then he selects one of them. If he didn’t get along with his parents, he’ll select a sibling. But the point is, the phone call is made to the next-of-kin only if the next-of-kin agrees to take the phone call. Sometimes they don’t.

So a pre-call is made: The President of the United States or the commandant of the Marine Corps, or someone would like to call, will you accept the call? And typically, they all accept the call.

So he called four people the other day and expressed his condolences in the best way that he could. And he said to me, what do I say? I said to him, sir, there’s nothing you can do to lighten the burden on these families.

Well, let me tell you what I told him. Let me tell you what my best friend, Joe Dunford, told me — because he was my casualty officer. He said, Kel, he was doing exactly what he wanted to do when he was killed. He knew what he was getting into by joining that 1 percent. He knew what the possibilities were because we’re at war. And when he died, in the four cases we’re talking about, Niger, and my son’s case in Afghanistan — when he died, he was surrounded by the best men on this Earth: his friends.

That’s what the President tried to say to four families the other day. I was stunned when I came to work yesterday morning, and broken-hearted at what I saw a member of Congress doing. A member of Congress who listened in on a phone call from the President of the United States to a young wife, and in his way tried to express that opinion — that he’s a brave man, a fallen hero, he knew what he was getting himself into because he enlisted. There’s no reason to enlist; he enlisted. And he was where he wanted to be, exactly where he wanted to be, with exactly the people he wanted to be with when his life was taken.

That was the message. That was the message that was transmitted.

It stuns me that a member of Congress would have listened in on that conversation. Absolutely stuns me. And I thought at least that was sacred. You know, when I was a kid growing up, a lot of things were sacred in our country. Women were sacred, looked upon with great honor. That’s obviously not the case anymore as we see from recent cases. Life — the dignity of life — is sacred. That’s gone. Religion, that seems to be gone as well.

Gold Star families, I think that left in the convention over the summer. But I just thought — the selfless devotion that brings a man or woman to die on the battlefield, I just thought that that might be sacred.

And when I listened to this woman and what she was saying, and what she was doing on TV, the only thing I could do to collect my thoughts was to go and walk among the finest men and women on this Earth. And you can always find them because they’re in Arlington National Cemetery. I went over there for an hour-and-a-half, walked among the stones, some of whom I put there because they were doing what I told them to do when they were killed.

I’ll end with this: In October — April, rather, of 2015, I was still on active duty, and I went to the dedication of the new FBI field office in Miami. And it was dedicated to two men who were killed in a firefight in Miami against drug traffickers in 1986 — a guy by the name of Grogan and Duke. Grogan almost retired, 53 years old; Duke, I think less than a year on the job. Anyways, they got in a gunfight and they were killed. Three other FBI agents were there, were wounded, and now retired. So we go down — Jim Comey gave an absolutely brilliant memorial speech to those fallen men and to all of the men and women of the FBI who serve our country so well, and law enforcement so well.

There were family members there. Some of the children that were there were three or four years old when their dads were killed on that street in Miami-Dade. Three of the men that survived the fight were there, and gave a rendition of how brave those men were and how they gave their lives.

And a congresswoman stood up, and in the long tradition of empty barrels making the most noise, stood up there and all of that and talked about how she was instrumental in getting the funding for that building, and how she took care of her constituents because she got the money, and she just called up President Obama, and on that phone call he gave the money — the $20 million — to build the building. And she sat down, and we were stunned. Stunned that she had done it. Even for someone that is that empty a barrel, we were stunned.

But, you know, none of us went to the press and criticized. None of us stood up and were appalled. We just said, okay, fine.

So I still hope, as you write your stories, and I appeal to America, that let’s not let this maybe last thing that’s held sacred in our society — a young man, young woman going out and giving his or her life for our country — let’s try to somehow keep that sacred. But it eroded a great deal yesterday by the selfish behavior of a member of Congress.

So I’m willing to take a question or two on this topic. Let me ask you this: Is anyone here a Gold Star parent or sibling? Does anyone here know a Gold Star parent or sibling?

Staff Sgt. Bryan C. Black, Staff Sgt. Jeremiah W. Johnson, Staff Sgt. Dustin M. Wright, Sgt. La David T. Johnson, U.S. Army, killed in Niger 4 October 2017. (Images: U.S. Army via Fox News)
J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer is a retired Naval Intelligence officer who lives in Southern California, blogging as The Optimistic Conservative for domestic tranquility and world peace. Her articles have appeared at Hot Air, Commentary’s Contentions, Patheos, The Daily Caller, The Jewish Press, and The Weekly Standard.


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