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Veterans React To Trump Politicizing Condolences Of Military Deaths

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

After the attack on October 4 in Niger, President Trump did not make a public statement about it until a reporter asked him about it just a few days ago. And then things went into uncharted territory. The president said he has called all of the families of fallen troops since he took office. But at least nine Gold Star families contacted by The Associated Press said he never called.

Trump went onto say that past presidents didn't make condolence calls - also not true. Then a Democratic congresswoman who listened in on a Trump call to a grieving widow said he made a disrespectful remark. The administration disputes that characterization. And as we've heard elsewhere in the program, his chief of staff was defending the president today with emotional remarks at the White House.

Through all of this, NPR's Quil Lawrence reports veterans are struggling with the injection of politics into a subject previously considered out-of-bounds.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Major veterans organizations steer clear of partisan politics. The American Legion said it's against the politicization of any Gold Star family's loss. The VFW said it respects the privacy of condolence calls. Bonnie Carroll is with TAPS, the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors. She says there's no one correct way to express condolences.

BONNIE CARROLL: You know, it isn't about the politics. It's about healing a broken heart. It's about honoring and remembering the life and the service of someone who died for their country.

LAWRENCE: Carroll is an Air Force veteran. She founded TAPS after her husband was killed while serving in the National Guard. She says she hopes the national conversation can focus on honoring the fallen and their families. With so few Americans serving over 16 years of war, there's a gap of understanding between the military and civilians. That extends to military families.

ALLISON JASLOW: You know, I've been to Iraq twice, but I still don't know what it was like to be my mom.

LAWRENCE: Allison Jaslow is with Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. She says the stress on families at home can be worse in a way.

JASLOW: I knew every day that I was - when I was safe, when I was going out the gate, when bullets were flying over my head. My mom had no choice but to worry every single day.

LAWRENCE: Jaslow says she had been hoping that the media attention would shine a light on troops serving overseas now.

JASLOW: You know, I think that there has been inappropriate behavior from Democrats and Republicans, but I'm honestly just a little shocked that we're still having a political conversation about it.

LAWRENCE: There's another conversation that isn't happening as the partisan fight continues, says Andrew Bacevich, a renowned military historian at Boston University.

ANDREW BACEVICH: This issue about the president's ham-handed conversation with the family of the soldier who was killed really ends up becoming both a distraction. And I think it also in a very unfortunate way politicizes a matter that ought to be beyond politics.

LAWRENCE: Bacevich is an Army veteran and himself lost a son to the war in Iraq. He has been critical of the past three presidents for the open-ended nature of the current global war on terrorism. But he's just as critical of a disengaged public.

BACEVICH: Because we don't care. And the only time we notice is when some soldier is getting killed in a place like Niger, and we're baffled by the fact that he was there in the first place.

LAWRENCE: The four U.S. Army sergeants who died in Niger were Bryan Black, Jeremiah Johnson, Dustin Wright and La David Johnson. Quil Lawrence, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.