Several veterans and military family members will be among the White House’s invited guests for tonight’s State of the Union address, and their stories are expected to play into themes of the annual speech.
Administration officials last week had announced that Army veteran Tony Rankins would be among the featured guests and is expected to be mentioned by President Donald Trump in the prime-time event.
Rankins suffered post-traumatic stress disorder following his combat deployment to Afghanistan and became addicted to drugs, ending up in prison and subsequently homeless. The veteran turned his life around thanks to a job training program connected to opportunity zones in Cincinnati backed by administration programs.
On Tuesday, the White House announced three other guests connected to the military.
Paul Morrow, an Alabama resident, also served in the Army and started a contracting business after his military career. Like Rankins, his story is designed to highlight the Opportunity Zones program, part of the tax code overhaul pushed by the White House early in Trump’s presidency.
Kelli Hake, an Oklahoma resident, is a Gold Star wife whose husband, Army Staff Sgt. Christopher Hake, was killed in Iraq in 2008. She’ll be watching the speech along with her son, Gage, who was a 1-year-old at the time of his father’s death.
Military officials said Christopher Hake was killed by a roadside bomb connected to terrorist groups backed by Iranian Gen. Qassim Soleimani, who was killed in an airstrike ordered by Trump last month.
The killing has drawn conflicting reaction from Congress: Republicans have mostly praised the move, Democrats have mostly questioned whether the president overstepped his war authorities by acting without lawmakers’ approval.
White House officials have said the theme of the Tuesday evening speech — the fourth time Trump has addressed Congress — will be “the Great American Comeback" featuring past national economic accomplishments and future plans for improved quality of life for all Americans.
But officials also said the speech will include several items on protecting America’s national security, including an update on diplomatic and military efforts around the world. Officials would not say whether any planned troop draw-downs in Afghanistan or troop plus-ups in the Middle East will be featured in the address.
At least 17 Democratic lawmakers have also announced plans to bring veterans and military families as invited guests to the national event. Below is a partial list of those individuals:
- Rep. Andy Levin, D-Mich.: Mary Miller-Strobel, whose veteran brother died by suicide
- Rep. Mikie Sherrill, D-N.J.: April Morgan, mother of a West Point cadet who died during training accident.
- Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Va.: Gold Star wife Kristen Fenty
- Rep. T.J. Cox, D-Calif.: Gold Star wife Bethany Temores
- House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takano, D-Calif: Retired Army Reserve Lt. Col. Elton Johnson Jr.
- Rep. Jesús García, D-Ill.: Formerly deported Army veteran Miguel Perez Jr.
- Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M.: Brig. Gen. Michele LaMontagne, commander of the New Mexico Air National Guard
- Rep. Josh Harder, D-Calif: Joshua Melendez, a Vietnam veteran diagnosed with bladder cancer who was exposed to Agent Orange.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.