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June 25, 2019

10/21/2017 7:30:00 AM
Trump and Gold Star families
He doesn't get it
Brian Jopek
Lakeland Times Reporter

In the 1970 film "Patton," Ed Binns portrays Lt. General Walter "Bedell" Smith, who was Dwight D. Eisenhower's chief of staff.

There's a scene in the film that takes place in England in the months before the Allied invasion of France at Normandy on June 6, 1944.

George S. Patton, portrayed by George C. Scott, is on "probation" at the time after an incident in which he slapped a U.S. soldier in Sicily.

Smith tells Patton he's to be the commander of a "phantom" army meant to fool the Germans.

When Patton asks if that's all anyone thinks he's good for, Smith has some sage advice for Patton.

"Frankly, George, you're on probation," he said. "Take my advice and behave yourself. Remember, your worst enemy is your own big mouth."

President Donald Trump, supposedly a fan of George S. Patton, could probably learn from that advice.

On Oct. 4, four U.S. troops were killed in action in the African country of Niger.

I won't get into why they were there or what the mission was or any of that. That's for another time, another article.

Twelve days later, after going the entire time without saying or tweeting anything at all about the loss of those four soldiers, President Donald Trump, the county's commander-in-chief of the armed forces, was asked Monday during a press conference about his silence.

His response was that he had written letters and would make phone calls to family members of those four troops when he felt it was appropriate.

OK, next.

Except, Trump and Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader from Kentucky, didn't move on. Instead, Trump started talking about his predecessors and how they handled contacting family members of those killed in action. He claimed they never, or rarely, contacted the families.

I happen to know from personal experience that's a lot of bunk.

When my oldest son, Ryan, was killed in action in Iraq in August 2006, I didn't receive a phone call from George W. Bush, the president at the time. Neither did anyone else in my family, to my knowledge.

I did get a nice "form note" from the White House expressing condolences and so on and it was stamped - not hand-signed - with Bush's signature.

The experiences of Gold Star families, I've found, can vary. Over the course of the last decade or so, I've talked to other Gold Star family members who were contacted by Bush and Obama.

In fact, not many people know this but it was the Obama administration, on a recommendation from Robert Gates, then the secretary of defense, who reversed the policy prohibiting family members and media from being at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware when Air Force transports with the caskets of troops killed in Iraq or Afghanistan arrive.

That took place just weeks after Obama was sworn into office in 2009.

So, any family of a U.S. troop killed in action overseas since early 2009 can thank the Obama administration for that much, the opportunity to be present when their loved one comes home.

As far as the current controversy concerning Gold Star family members and Trump is concerned, he did make his phone calls Tuesday to family members of the four troops killed in Niger Oct. 4.

Part of one of those calls was overheard by a Democratic Congresswoman from Florida who was riding in the limo with the widow of one of the soldiers.

They were on their way to greet the aircraft carrying the remains of the woman's husband.

According to the Congresswoman, Trump told the widow her husband "knew what he was getting into."

I have questions about this as well, including why a member of Congress was in a limo with a Gold Star spouse going to the airport to greet her husband's casket.

Did the family reach out to the politician or vice versa?

Regardless, if Trump actually did say that, it's pretty classless.

Those of us who enlisted and swore an oath know, to an extent, what we're getting into.

I say "to an extent" because we have, or should have, faith in our leadership not to send us to places we don't belong and possibly get hurt or killed while we're in that place we probably shouldn't be.

That said, knowing "what he was getting into" really ranks near the top of something you shouldn't say to a family member who's lost a loved one who was killed in action. That doesn't make the family member feel any better.

Also Tuesday, Trump told the press to ask his own chief-of-staff, retired Marine Corps general John Kelly, if he received a call from Obama.

Like myself, Kelly is a Gold Star father and has made it pretty clear over the course of time since his son Robert was killed in action in Afghanistan during 2010 that he'd prefer to keep it to himself and his family as much as possible.

That's absolutely fine as people grieve in different ways. Trust me on this, I know.

What Trump did by throwing Kelly's son out there in that manner in an attempt to make some sort of political point and "circle the wagons" is also pretty classless.

For one thing, it's well documented that Kelly, invited by and a guest of the Obamas, attended a breakfast for Gold Star families at the White House in 2011.

After Monday's press conference, in "damage control" mode, the White House issued a statement regarding Trump's delay in reaching out to the families of the four U.S. troops killed in action in Niger, claiming it took 12 days for the notification of next of kin process to be completed. This is also a crock.

The policy is for notification of parents, siblings and/or spouses, if the troop was married.

It doesn't pertain to the troop's third through 10th cousin twice removed or whatever.

If that were the case, yeah, the notification process would more than likely take much longer than 12 days.

It's all a mess, a huge mess, at least in the Gold Star community.

Some of those, maybe many of those, post 9/11 Gold Star family members are Trump fans.

I know some who are. I also know some who very definitely are not.

For Donald Trump, though, he's in a position, as president of the United States and the commander-in-chief of the country's armed forces, where he's obviously not going to please everyone. That just comes with the territory.

Look, I get it. Trump supporters chalk it up to his "not being a politician" and so on.

But this particular mess, with all these raw feelings involved and in this age where he's really big on NFL players needing to stand for the national anthem and so on, this is the sort of mess Trump definitely could have - and should have - taken steps to avoid.

Brian Jopek may be reached via email at

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