WASHINGTON — Some got sympathy and solace. Some got silence. One got a promise of cash.
Relatives of people who died in military service have recounted varied interactions with President Donald Trump in the difficult days and weeks after the deaths of their loved ones. Despite Trump’s boast that he reaches out personally to all families of the fallen, interviews with families members did not support his claim. Some never heard from him at all, and a few who did came away more upset.
The Associated Press tried to reach the families of all 43 people who have died in military service since Trump became president and made contact with about 20 families. More than half said they had not heard from Trump.
Several spoke of being comforted by Trump but at least one call went awry: Cowanda Jones-Johnson told the AP that Trump spoke disrespectfully of her fallen nephew, Sgt. La David Johnson, when he called family members Tuesday. Johnson was among four servicemen killed in Niger earlier this month.
Trump’s chief of staff, John Kelly, who lost his Marine son Robert in Afghanistan, sharply rebuked a congresswoman who listened to the call with Johnson’s widow and lashed out at Trump after. Kelly said Trump expressed his condolences in that call “the best way that he could.”
Chris Baldridge of Zebulon, North Carolina, told The Washington Post that Trump promised him $25,000 of his own money when they spoke in the summer about the loss of his son, Army Sgt. Dillon Baldridge, killed in Afghanistan, but the check never came. The White House said Wednesday, after the report, that “the check has been sent.”
Others waited for calls that did not come.
In Maine, the brother of a Marine who was killed in the crash of an Osprey aircraft said the family got no call or letter from Trump.
Capt. Ben Cross of Bethel was one of three Marines killed in the crash in August off the coast of Australia. His older brother, Ryan Cross, who’s an Army veteran, said Trump portrays himself as a champion of the armed forces but it’s “all talk and no action.”
After Army Sgt. Jonathon M. Hunter died in a suicide bombing attack in Afghanistan in August, his family was told to expect a call from Trump. But it didn’t happen. Hunter, 23, from Columbus, Indiana, died 32 days into his first deployment since joining the Army in 2014.
Mark Hunter, his father, said a military casualty officer informed the family that Trump would call and the family was let down when he didn’t.
“Disappointed that he at least didn’t call and thank me for my son and our ultimate sacrifice,” Hunter said. “That’s all I wanted to hear. He didn’t have to say nothing else. That’s all I wanted to hear. From him — not the vice-president.”
The family spoke with Vice-President Mike Pence, who grew up in the same southern Indiana city, at the ceremony honouring the return of the soldier’s remains at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. So did several other families who lost loved ones in uniform.
Calling every family member isn’t a presidential tradition. Trump’s recent predecessors have reached out to Gold Star families through letters, private meetings and invitations. For Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, who saw far more war dead on their watch, individual phone calls would have been a time-consuming task. Still, Trump this week used his calls as evidence of his support for the military, suggesting he did more to honour the families than his predecessors did.
“I think I’ve called every family of someone who’s died,” Trump said, then adding, “virtually everybody.” He said it’s his practice both to make phone calls and send letters.
Trump spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders repeated the claim Wednesday, saying the president “has made contact with all of the families that have been presented to him through the White House Military Office.” She did not say whether that contact necessarily meant a phone call, or only a letter, and she did not not address the specifics of why families of some war dead have received neither.
When someone is killed in action, a Pentagon officer notifies next of kin and sends information to the White House office that is confirmed and assembled, she said. “Once that process is completed, the president or other members of the administration can engage in contact,” she said.
That process appears to have broken down.
After Army Spc. Christopher Michael Harris, 25, of Jackson Springs, North Carolina, was killed in a suicide attack in Afghanistan in August, the White House offered to set up a call but “it fell through” and no letter came from the president, either, said his widow, Brittany Harris.
Aaron Butler, a 27-year-old guardsman from Monticello, Utah, was killed Aug. 16 at a booby-trapped building in Nangarhar Province, Afghanistan. His mother, Laura Butler, and family spokesman Bill Boyle said Trump has not called or sent a letter. The family is not complaining. “The family is very careful that they do not want to be pulled into a partisan slugfest,” Boyle said.
Jodie Missildine’s 20-year-old stepson, Alex Missildine, was killed Oct. 1 when an IED exploded near his vehicle in Ninawa Province, Iraq. He had been in Iraq for less than a month.
Jodie Missildine said the family had received an outpouring of support from Washington since receiving news of Alex’s death. But when asked if Trump had been in contact, she demurred, saying, “We will not speak ill of a president who adores his troops.”
In his claims, Trump made no distinction between combat and noncombat deaths. Past practice suggests that those who die fighting are more likely than military-accident victims to prompt a president to reach out personally to the family.
After U.S. Army Specialist Isiah Booker died Jan. 7 in Jordan, apparently when operating heavy construction equipment, President Barack Obama did not call. Neither did Trump after he took office that month. Chereisa Booker, of Schertz, Texas, said Trump had taken office by the time a condolence letter was processed and she and her husband received the letter. They also asked for and got one from Obama. But no calls.
Booker said “not really” when asked if she wanted to hear from Trump. But Sheila Murphy did after her son, Army Spc. Etienne J. Murphy, 22, died May 26 after an armoured vehicle he was riding in rolled over in Syria.
“Because it was noncombat, I feel like maybe he thought it was an accident, it doesn’t matter,” Sheila Murphy said of Trump. “But my son was in Syria.” She says she’s waited in vain for a letter, even after writing to Trump six weeks ago to tell him she was still deeply grieving.
Cynthia Kimball received a letter from the president, but no call, after her Navy son John Henry Hoagland III died in the collision between the USS John S. McCain and a merchant vessel in August. “They said we could order more copies of it if we wanted,” she said. “It was pretty generic. I hate to say that, because it did come from Washington and the president. But, I’m going to guess that it was the same or similar to the letter that everybody else received.”
McCain, himself, though, called her and other families of the victims. He left a “really nice” phone message with his cellphone number in case she needed anything, she said. Kimball lives in Fort Benning, Georgia, and her son grew up in Cleveland, Texas.