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Photo: Steve Burns
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Photo: Steve Burns
Some got sympathy and solace. One got a promise of cash. Some got silence, including a Columbus, Indiana family grieving the recent loss of Jonathon Hunter.
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.
“Disappointed that he at least didn’t call and thank me for my son and our ultimate sacrifice. That’s all I wanted to hear.”
The Associated Press reached out to the families of all 43 people who have died in military service since Trump became president and made contact with about half the families. Of those who would address the question, relatives of nine said they had heard from Trump by phone or mail. Relatives of nine others said they haven’t.
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.
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.
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 honoring 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.
Watch: Jonathon Hunter’s body is returned to his hometown.
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 honor 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.
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.