WASHINGTON — Advocates for the families of fallen service members hope their sacrifices aren’t being overshadowed by the growing controversy surrounding President Donald Trump’s recent handling of condolences related to the deaths of four soldiers in Niger.
“Beyond the back and forth going on right now, I’m worried about the politicization of Gold Star families that is happening,” said Ryan Manion, president of the Travis Manion Foundation.
“We never saw this in the past. There are some things that have to transcend politics.”
In recent days, Trump received harsh criticism first for his delay in reaching out to the families of the fallen soldiers, then for telling one grieving widow that her husband “knew what he signed up for” before his death.
In an interview with the Washington Post, the mother of that soldier — Sgt. La David Johnson, one of the four troops killed in the Oct. 2 Niger ambush — said Trump’s comments “did disrespect my son and my daughter, and also me and my husband.”
Before details of that call emerged, officials from Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors released a statement calling for respect for the families involved.
“While there is no one way to acknowledge the death, what is important for the family is that the president acknowledges the life and service of their loved one, and expresses gratitude on behalf of the nation,” said Bonnie Carroll, founder of the group.
“Just as there is no right or wrong way to grieve, there is no right or wrong way to express one’s condolences. What matters is that we honor the lives and the sacrifice, and provide support for all grieving families so no one has to walk such a difficult journey alone.”
Manion, whose brother, Travis, was killed in Iraq in 2007, said she feels the contentious 2016 presidential campaign opened up those Gold Star families to the harshness of partisan politics in a way she had never seen before.
During the campaign, Trump drew harsh criticism for his handling of Khizr Khan, a Gold Star father who spoke out against the Republican frontrunner at the Democratic National Convention. Trump attacked Khan for spreading “inaccuracies” about his qualifications to be president and implied that Khan may have forced his wife into silence under Islamic law.
Manion thinks both sides share the blame for politicizing those families’ sacrifices. She said reaction to Trump’s highlighting a Gold Star widow during his address to Congress in February was upsetting, with critics viewing it as pandering and supporters extolling it as a sign of leadership.
“What we want to do now is try to find a way to shift the narrative away from using Gold Star families as talking points in political fights,” she said.
That starts with more education about them. Manion said if there is a positive development to come out of the latest controversy, it’s more discussion about the thousands of military family members who have been affected by the death of a loved one on duty.
“People outside our community don’t always think about them,” she said. “I’ve had people ask me how I earned my gold star, not understanding what that means.”
TAPS officials are asking Americans to “reach out to families who live in your community, co-workers at your office, and those you encounter elsewhere to reassure them their loved ones lives and sacrifice will never be forgotten.”
Officials at the Travis Manion Foundation have a stated goal of “empowering veterans and families of fallen heroes.” Ryan Manion said she wants to emphasize how those families have overcome tragedy, and the important perspective they bring to national conversations of service and leadership.
“Maybe we can make this less of a conversation about grieving families and more about their incredible stories,” she said.