If I had been in that briefing room when White House Chief of Staff and retired Gen. John Kelly stated that only journalists who had a personal connection to a fallen soldier were allowed to ask a question, I could have raised my hand. But that would have cheapened the memory of a Marine, my beloved nephew, treating his life and death as currency in an unholy transaction.
I get what Kelly was trying to pointedly point out — the disconnect between the folks in the room who may have been untouched by the costs of military service and the families who live with them every day. In truth, though, that gulf could have extended to the street and into most American homes — including the White House, whose occupant has the actual power to send men and women into war.
But to have used that ticket I wish I did not possess for advantage would have betrayed the values of the America my nephew served. That America is one where a journalist or any citizen is certainly allowed, even encouraged, to question a government official who is beholden to the U.S. Constitution — not the man sitting in the Oval Office.
Though I think of that gentle young man often, I hesitate mentioning him at all. His is my sister’s story to tell, and I respect that. It is the late Marine’s father, her Vietnam veteran husband’s story to tell.
So I called her to ask.
Of course, I knew the dust-up between the country’s most powerful leaders and a pregnant widow was hurting her all over again. When then-candidate Donald Trump disrespected Ghazala Khan, the Gold Star mother of Capt. Humayun Khan, wondering if she was silent as she stood by her husband’s side at last year’s Democratic National Convention because she was not allowed to speak, my sister asked, “Couldn’t he see that if she said a word or glanced at her son’s picture, she would break down completely? Doesn’t Donald Trump have a heart?”
And I stayed quiet, as I usually do when she gets that crack in her voice.
So I called to get her permission to share the story. That’s what you do. Like many veterans in the early 1990s, her son, a Marine lance corporal, suffered from unexplained symptoms when he returned from Iraq, that later became known as Gulf War Syndrome. He died a decade later.
I wonder if Trump got Kelly’s permission before he dragged him and his own son, 2nd Lt. Robert Kelly, killed in Afghanistan in 2010, into this slow-motion tragedy.
On the day of the funeral of Sgt. La David T. Johnson, whose name now will be associated with politics as well as sacrifice, Florida Gov. Rick Scott ordered flags at state and city buildings flown at half-staff. Hundreds of mourners honored him. Myeshia Johnson, dressed in white, kissed her husband’s casket.
President Trump started the day tweeting about a congresswoman and the media, and spent time at one of his golf clubs in Virginia.
A study in contrasts
At Johnson’s funeral, the portraits of the three other Green Berets, killed in a mission in Niger few knew about, took their place beside his — Staff Sgt. Bryan C. Black, Staff Sgt. Jeremiah W. Johnson and Staff Sgt. Dustin M. Wright — a lovely gesture and nod to their brotherhood. Myeshia Johnson, with two children and one on the way, showed more composure and resolve than I ever could.
In contrast, Trump won’t let go of his feud and the silly, cruel nicknames that he has since also bestowed on Republican senators who criticize him.
Fighting is his fuel.
In Rep. Frederica S. Wilson, Trump sees an African-American congresswoman and can’t resist making false statements, disrespecting, in the process, the constituents who elected her. And Kelly, unfortunately, left some moral authority at the briefing podium when he mischaracterized a speech Wilson gave during the dedication of an FBI building in Florida.
Without saying her name, Kelly also added his own nasty adjectives, following the disgraceful lead of his boss. At the end of his heartfelt description of what this country gives to and takes from the few who fight for the many and how it gently treats them when they return home one last time, it was a gratuitous, unwarranted swipe.
Wilson is not just a politician, but an educator with a graduate degree and years of service before she was elected to Congress. In 1993, as a member of the School Board of Miami-Dade County, Florida, she spearheaded what would become the 5000 Role Models of Excellence Project, which has served at-risk youth and, among other initiatives, pairs them with mentors to illuminate a path to college, professions and the military.
It nurtured La David Johnson, after his mother died and his aunt took over when he was a boy, helping him become the young man who loved riding bikes, serving his country and being a family man.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders called Wilson “all hat and no cattle.” How many programs like 5000 Role Models has Sanders started? (We get it, Sarah. Wilson likes to wear hats; it wasn’t witty the first time someone said it.)
Did Wilson escalate what Trump and Kelly started? Maybe. But when someone goes on TV to “lie” on you, it’s natural to stand in your dignity and defend your name and reputation. On the day of the funeral, Wilson was comforting the family, while Trump fumed and made it about himself. She was with the Johnson family when the original presidential call came because she was more than a politician to them, and had been for a long time.
But Wilson was transformed into a caricature by Trump, Kelly, Sanders and the White House crew. They seem to prefer their fevered, dystopian fantasy of black life in which people are not helping themselves and each other to the reality of African-Americans as loving and supportive human beings.
That is the humanity Trump misses when he says “your guy” in his call to Myeshia Johnson, hurting — even if he did not mean to — the feelings of a woman who knew and loved her husband since they were children.
The women of the Congressional Black Caucus have demanded an apology from Kelly for his provable untruths about a hardworking member. They won’t get it because in America, few suffer for disparaging a black woman. Ask former first lady Michelle Obama, beloved but also insulted, despite her work for healthy children and, yes, military families.
Ask my sister, the onetime Baltimore Ravens fanatic, who is not really feeling the team these days. If only they had signed quarterback Colin Kaepernick, she says, they might be doing better. She supports Kaepernick’s community action and his fight for racial justice, and is sure her son would have approved of his and other NFL players’ right to kneel during the playing of the national anthem to advocate for that cause.
She knows that particular sentiment might put her in the president’s sights. But she figures being a Gold Star family of color attacked by Donald Trump puts her in very good company.
Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.