President Trump's handling of one of the most difficult aspects of the job — calling the kin of service members killed in the line of duty — has struck a nerve with some Gold Star families.
The president, who has spent the last week peddling false claims that his predecessors didn't reach out to the families of soldiers killed or wounded in action, is facing scrutiny after reportedly telling a widow of a soldier who died in a recent ambush that her husband "must have known what he signed up for." To Gold Star mother Christina Ayube, who lost her son seven years ago, that behaviour was a slap in the face to the families of fallen soldiers everywhere and "a complete embarrassment."
"It's appalling. You don't tell someone, Well, he signed up for it! He knew what he was getting into! Because you know what: He may have, but [the widow] didn't," Ayube said. "She married someone and expected him to be there for the birth of their third child, to walk their daughter down the aisle, to be there for graduations, to celebrate anniversaries, Christmases, birthdays. This is not how you express gratitude for his service."
Trump's alleged comments came during a call to Myeshia Johnson, whose husband Sgt. La David T. Johnson was one of four special-forces soldiers killed earlier this month in an ambush in Niger. Rep. Frederica Wilson, who was riding in a car with Myeshia when the call took place, said that in addition to the "must have known" remark, Trump kept referring to the fallen soldier as "your guy" — almost as if he didn't know Johnson's name. Trump denied making the insensitive comments to the widow. However, Johnson's mother, Cowanda Jones-Johnson, seemed to confirm the account, saying, "President Trump did disrespect my son and my daughter and also me and my husband."
Ayube, whose son Sgt. James Ayube Jr. was 25 years old when he was killed in Afghanistan, said her experience was completely different. He served as an Army medic, and died while on a combat mission at the hands of a suicide bomber on December 8, 2010. Ayube said that after James' death, she learned that President Obama had saluted him as his remains were removed from the plane. Her family also received a private letter from the president expressing his condolences. For Ayube, the contrast between the kindness her family felt from the Obama administration and reports of Trump's conduct with Johnson's widow is shocking.
"She is heartbroken, she's in a horrible position. Not only having two little kids, but being pregnant with the third one — this is the worst-case scenario," she said. "Trump is supposed to be the commander- and comforter-in-chief, and he can't seem to grasp it."
Making matters worse, in Ayube's eyes, is that all this comes amid the president's ongoing feud with NFL players over their decision not to stand for the national anthem — a controversy she sees as a massive distraction given the magnitude and gravity of responsibilities he deals with every day — including life-and-death decisions involving service members like Sgt. Johnson and her own son. "I'm just horrified that [Trump] is in this petty fight," she said. "Doesn't he have anything else to do?"
This December marks seven years since James was killed. While life without him has become "the new normal," it will never be the same. Support, she says, is crucial to making it through the grief, which is why she wanted to speak out and stand with fellow Gold Star relatives like Myeshia Johnson. "[When you lose someone in the military], you become part of a new family," she said. "One that you never wanted to be part of."