The contentious back-and-forth between President Trump and a Florida congresswoman over the commander-in-chief's conversation with the widow of a U.S. soldier killed earlier this month in Niger has left some families of fallen American members soured.
The widow of Army Sgt. La David Johnson has criticized Trump’s tone in a condolence call he made to her 12 days after her husband was killed in the ambush.
Myeshia Johnson, Sgt. Johnson's widow, said in television interviews that she was unhappy with Trump's tone and that he seemed confused about her husband's name during the call. She said Trump told her that her husband “knew what he signed up for, but it hurts anyways.”
The president on Wednesday again denied that he was confused about the solder’s name and said he was "extremely nice" to the widow. He has also slammed Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., who was listening in on the call and was the first to criticize the president over his tone. The situation was further inflamed by Trump’s false comments that previous presidents had not made condolence calls to the families of fallen troops — a statement he later walked back.
In the shadows of the ongoing battle, some relatives of fallen soldiers say they've had enough, while also coming to Trump's defense.
“I’m not saying Ms. Johnson is wrong for the way she feels,” said Brittany Jacobs, who with her 6-year-old son had a chance encounter with the president at Arlington National Cemetery while visiting her late husband, Marine Sgt. Christopher Jacobs grave on Memorial Day. “Everyone grieves in their own way. There is no way that President Trump had any malicious intent when he called her.”
The episode has put Gold Star families, a term used by the military to describe the parents, siblings and children of men and women killed in combat, in the spotlight. For some, the spat has exacerbated the lingering grief that comes with losing a loved one in combat.
Don Schauwecker, whose 34-year-old stepson Staff Sgt. Rick Blakley was killed by a sniper in Iraq in 2006, said that he was listening to the radio while driving last week when he heard Trump’s chief of staff, retired Marine Gen. John Kelly, try to explain that Trump was paying tribute to Johnson.
Kelly, whose own son died while serving in Afghanistan, relayed that what Trump said was similar to what he was told to comfort him after his son died. Kelly’s emotional comments were largely overshadowed by his pillorying of Wilson as an “empty barrel” and wrongly accusing the congresswoman of bragging in 2015 about securing the federal aid to build an FBI field office in South Florida.
But for Schauwecker, Kelly’s comments resonated, and made him recall his own stepson’s commitment to the military. Six months before he was killed, Blakley was wounded in the shoulder, but was back out with his unit in less than 24 hours.
His younger son, Nathan, deployed to Iraq two months after his brother Blakley, who served as medic in in the Indiana National Guard, was buried. The two soldiers' mother, Janice Schauwecker, recalled she and her husband didn’t ask Nathan to try to get out of the deployment after their elder son was killed, because she knew both of her sons saw their commitment to their fellow soldiers as sacred.
“I had to pull over and wipe the tears from my eyes,” said Don Schauwecker of his reaction to Kelly speaking of his own son. “After he was wounded that first time, he was told he could stick behind the wire for a while. But Rick said that he felt he needed to be right back out there, because the closer he was to his to soldiers, the better chance he had at keeping them alive if something should happen. He was committed.”
In the midst of the back-and-forth between Trump and Rep. Wilson, Janice Schauwecker said she fears the tragic deaths of four young soldiers in Niger has been turned into a political cudgel for Democrats to use against the president. In addition to Sgt. Johnson, Staff Sgt. Bryan Black,35, of Puyallup, Washington; Staff Sgt. Jeremiah Johnson, 39, of Springboro, Ohio; and Staff Sgt. Dustin M. Wright, 29, of Lyons, Georgia, along with five Niger soldiers were killed in the attack.
“It feels like the way things are going right now, that if President Trump stubbed his toe, the big story would be about him wearing the wrong shoes,” said Schauwecker, who said she did not receive a call from former President George W. Bush after her son’s death. “He did a good thing in calling the wife,”
Other Gold Star families who interacted with Trump before the Niger incident said that Myeshia Johnson’s experience was far different than their own conversations with the president.
Jasmin Bays, the wife of Sgt. William Bays, 29, said Trump was “kind, genuine and sincere,” when he called to offer condolences. Bays, of Barstow, California, was among three 101st soldiers who died June 10 when a rogue Afghan police officer attacked them during a routine training exercise, according to the Defense Department. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack.
“His words helped me heal during my time of grief,” Bays told USA TODAY Network - Tennessee in an email.
Brittany Jacobs, the widow who met Trump during a Memorial Day service at Arlington, said the president was stopped by her six-year-old son, Christian, as the president and Vice President Pence passed them that day. The president agreed to accompany Christian to the grave site of his father who died during a military exercise at Twentynine Palms, Calif. in 2011.
She said the president ended up spending several minutes chatting with her son. The president also remembered Christian when he spotted the boy at a crowded July 4 celebration at the White House that the family was invited to.
“What is being said about the president contradicts what I’ve seen with my own eyes,” Jacobs said. “It feels like the Democrats and the media are trying to politicize this woman’s loss.”