The Sister Of A Fallen Soldier Has This Message For Donald Trump

Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images.
The parents of Army Capt. Humayun Khan appear at the DNC.
When Amy Santoriello heard Donald Trump's attacks against the family of a Muslim-American soldier who was killed in the line of duty, her reaction was visceral.

“It made me throw up," she told Refinery29.

Trump's comments in the wake of the Khan family's appearance at the Democratic National Convention have been met with swift and unequivocal condemnation from some of the country's leading advocates for members of the military and their families.

The nation's oldest and largest veterans' group blasted Trump's suggestion that Ghazala Khan, the grieving mother of Army Capt. Humayun Khan, wasn't "allowed" to speak because of her religion, as "out of bounds." Sen. John McCain, a veteran and former prisoner of war, said the GOP nominee doesn't have an "unfettered license to defame." A group of 11 Gold Star families described Trump's actions as "repugnant and personally offensive."

"You are not just attacking us, you are cheapening the sacrifice made by those we lost," the letter read.

For Santoriello, a minister with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, the reaction was tied to understanding firsthand the pain of losing a member of the family to war. Her only brother, Neil Anthony Santoriello, was killed by an improvised explosive device while he was serving in Iraq in 2004. He died just a month before his deployment was set to end.

“No one has the right to tell somebody else how to grieve," Santoriello, who lives in Pennsylvania, said of Trump's remarks.

The former kindergarten teacher and Gold Star sibling spoke with Refinery29 about her family's loss, why she finds the nominee's comments so hurtful, and what she wants to hear from candidates when it comes to supporting the military.

Tell me about your sibling.
"My brother Neil was a second lieutenant in the Army. He was a tank commander and he was killed August 13, 2004, just shy of his 25th birthday. He always had a call to serve in the military. From the time he was little, he could look up in the sky and tell you what kind of aircraft something was and what kind of weapons and what kind of missions it flew. He always had that interest and had wanted to go into the service for as long as I can remember."
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You can see it in Mr. and Mrs. Kahn's eyes that they are in an incredible amount of pain. I identified with that.

Amy Santoriello, Gold Star sibling

You entered the ministry full-time in 2005 — was that a decision that was shaped by the loss of your brother?
"I was actually working as a youth director in addition to teaching kindergarten, and felt the call to ministry early on. I actually delayed going to seminary a year because my parents were not functioning after my brother's death. I didn’t want to leave home at that point…It was just the two of us [siblings]."

I'm sorry. That must still be so difficult.
"It is in ways that people don’t think about. I've lost my sibling, and now, as a middle-aged woman, what I have to look forward to is making those decisions about my parents' health care on my own. These are things you don’t think about. You’re supposed to have your siblings to deal with some of that family stuff, but I don't have that anymore. A sibling is a person who remembers your past and helps you look forward to your future. That's gone. I don't have that person."

What did watching Khizr Khan's speech at the Democratic National Convention mean to you, as a fellow Gold Star family member?
“Watching Mr. Khan brought back a lot of memories of what it was like for my parents very early on to lose their child, and the immense hurt and grief behind that. You can see it in Mr. and Mrs. Kahn's eyes that they are in an incredible amount of pain. I identified with that. I feel very humbled when other people share their pain, because that is something that is very hard to do. It takes a lot of courage for somebody to say, 'This is how awful things are, but you need to know about it.'"

A sibling is a person who remembers your past and helps you look forward to your future. That's gone. I don't have that person.

Amy Santoriello

When you heard Trump, you physically threw up. Can you share why it was such a visceral reaction, and why you find his comments so hurtful and problematic?
“Honestly, we know that the symptom of being a psychopath is not being able to show empathy, which worries me, that this man has risen to this much power… I professionally sit with a lot of people in their grief and their pain. Part of my call is to be there and be somebody to share burdens with. That is what us as human beings, I believe, are called to do, to sit with each other and share each other's burdens, not to make fun of them, not to bring more pain to them, not to cause anger and outrage and be divisive. Especially in a time of deep grief and sorrow, to be there with and for the other."

What do you wish the discussion and discourse related to service members and families looked like in this campaign?
"I think we want to support our servicemen and [servicewomen]. We need to support the families and the sacrifices that our servicemen and [servicewomen's] families make for that person to serve, as well. That needs to be the conversation. It is: How do we care for our military families? How do we care for our men and women in service, not how do we make fun of and belittle a family's grief?"
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the church with which Santoriello is affiliated.
It is the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, not the Evangelical church. Refinery29 regrets the error.
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