Friends of Padre Steve’s World,
I enlisted in the Army National Guard about the same time I entered the Army ROTC program at UCLA in August 1981. When I enlisted I did so knowing that if I successfully got through all of my training that I would not only put myself in harms way, but be responsible for the life of the soldiers who served under my command. Back then there was much to worry about. The Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan, the Middle East was in turmoil following the overthrow of the Shah of Iran and the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, while it appeared that the United States and the Soviet Union were on the precipice of a war which could destroy the world.
Once I was commissioned and stationed in Germany, all of my training, and all of our war plans had my house in the middle of a war that had it happened would have resulted in seventy to ninety percent casualties for my unit. In fact, I had signed up to die should a war break out. Thirty-six later, having been to war, I still know my duty as a military officer should a war like that which was imagined when I first enlisted and was commissioned should occur, I must be ready to die. The fact that I am already goofed up from PTSD and moral injury is irrelevant, I have to be ready to go to war and accept my fate.
That being said, my wife Judy didn’t sign up for that. So when I see and hear about politicians who dodged the draft like our current President tell a grieving widow of a Green Beret that he signed up for that, I get annoyed. It was a cruel thing for him to say, even if he meant well.
The fact is that I have been present at far too many death notifications, both military and civilian. Honestly there are very few good words one can say at such times and I have known, and I myself have totally screwed up when trying to go further than simply expressing my condolences and offering my help. Once a leader enters into the realm of trying to justify or soften the death of a military member it usually does not go well, especially when they are emotionally disconnected and cannot deal with the human cost of war, suffering and death, as seems to be the case with President Trump when he made a condolence call to the widow of Army Sergeant LaDavid Johnson. That call, the response of Mrs. Johnson, Sergeant Johnson’s mother, Congresswoman Frederica Wilson, and the President’s lashing out at their criticism had ignited a firestorm that I wish had never occurred. It also points to the danger when anyone attempts to comfort loved ones who died in war, particularly when so few people have had to deal with the anguish of war.
When people like this make notifications or condolence calls as was the case here, their emotional disconnect often leads to painfully awkward and sometime very damaging experiences for the person on the receiving end of the call. While the young Green Beret volunteered for such duty he most certainly understood the risks, but that is not the point. I signed up knowing the risks and took many extra ones by volunteering for dangerous assignments, usually only telling Judy after the fact, but then a lot of us are that way, but like it or not the fact that we know what we signed up for is but cold comfort to a grieving widow. That is not what they want to hear, their husbands may have known what they were signing up for and maybe even pushed the danger envelope, but telling the grieving widow that does nothing to mitigate their loss. When offering condolences the best advice is just to try to be there emotionally with the person, to listen to their grief, to express sympathy, and to offer to be there to help; or if you are the President to make a solemn promise to ensure they get what they need and to get to the bottom of what caused the death of their loved one.
Honestly, since he didn’t comment or even issue the press release that was written for him, I believe that he made this call in order to control the political damage done by his previous inaction. Likewise, I don’t think that the President meant to come across as uncaring, or unfeeling to Mrs. Johnson, and when he was criticized he did what he always does, he lashes out. That is who he is, that is what he is and sadly I don’t think that he has the capacity to learn from his mistakes or to change. I don’t think that he truly has the capacity to enter into the emotional world of what military personnel in harms way deal with or what their families experience.
But like I said at the beginning of this, when a President who dodged the draft and avoided military service makes a comment like what Mr. Trump did, it adds context to what was said. I can understand why Mrs. Johnson would take it as an insult to her husband’s service. In the context of Mr. Trump it is not hard to understand why people would be outraged. He compared avoiding sexually transmitted diseases to what combat veterans went through, demeaned the service of a legitimate war hero, Senator John McCain, called military personnel who suffer from PTSD “weak”, and who before his election disparaged those who have fought our wars as losers. He is a man who has said that he “loves war” but who avoided military service at all costs.
I found this whole event discouraging from a personal perspective because while I do not believe that the President meant to to be disrespectful to Mrs. Johnson, she did take it that way, as would many widows. His response of going on the attack after being criticized was worthy of condemnation. I have served under six Presidents including President Trump and I cannot imagine Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, or Barack Obama responding to the grief of a widow in such an overtly self defensive, calculating, and politically expedient act in terms of shoring up his base as did President Trump.
I also what will happen when the President either through accident or intent stumbles into a war on the Korean Peninsula or the Persian Gulf that kills many more Americans in a shorter time than in the Korean War or World War Two. I am reminded of the words of General John Buford played by Sam Elliott:
“We will charge valiantly… and be butchered valiantly! And afterwards, men in tall hats and gold watch fobs will thump their chests and say what a brave charge it was.”
I know what I signed up for up for. Judy and I talk about these things and after knowing me for almost forty years she understands me better than anyone. We were talking about the possibility of war a couple of weeks ago and she asked “will you resign or retire?” I said that I couldn’t because my place would to be with the troops. She said. “I knew that.” That doesn’t mean that she would take someone who said “he knew what he signed up for” better than Sergeant Johnson’s wife. In time she might be able to deal with that, but not in the immediate aftermath from someone who avoided war, suffering, and danger at every opportunity.
I hope that she never has to deal with that, but we live in an unpredictable world and have a very unpredictable and unstable man leading our nation.
So until tomorrow,