Stop Weaponizing Gold Star Families

The brouhaha over President Trump’s phone call to the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson has gotten even worse in recent days. After Chief of Staff John Kelly inserted himself in the debate, Kelly, himself a Gold Star father, became the subject of attacks from the left.

What have we become as a country when we use the families of fallen soldiers as weapons to attack political opponents? Or attack these families to protect politicians on our own side?

Not all of the families of fallen soldiers are going to say things that patriotic Americans agree with. Cindy Sheehan, the mother of Spc. Casey Sheehan, who was killed in Iraq in 2004, is a prime example of a Gold Star mother who says things that are offensive to many other Americans.

The bottom line, however, is that they have the right, as American citizens, to express their opinions. As Americans who have sacrificed a family member, they have paid an unusually high price for the right to speak their minds freely. Their opinions should be respected, if not necessarily agreed with.

Can we resolve the issue of the phone call to Mrs. Johnson without calling either President Trump or Cowanda Jones-Johnson a liar? Yes. It’s surprisingly easy to guess what happened when we lay aside political grudges and preconceptions.

Keep in mind that first-person witnesses to an event are notoriously unreliable. This is especially true in cases where the individuals are under stress and distracted. Neither side recorded the call so both only have their fallible human memories and impressions to fall back on.

My best guess as to what happened is that President Trump made the call to Sgt. Johnson’s widow in good faith and went off script, as he tends to do. What seemed to be an innocuous comment to the president and Gen. Kelly was taken differently by the Johnson family and Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fl.).

One of my favorite philosophies is Hanlon’s Razor, which advises, “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” This advice applies to both sides in the current debate.

First, liberals should acknowledge that Donald Trump would not intentionally act so callously toward the widow of a fallen American soldier. The fact that Gen. Kelly now backs up Trump’s claim is a powerful argument that Trump’s statement may have been misheard or misinterpreted.

Second, Trump supporters should not assume that the family is intent on using the death of Sgt. Johnson to embarrass and attack the president. To assume that a grieving family would lie about what they heard the president say, knowing that it would cause Sgt. Johnson’s name to be dragged through the mud and that family members would be subjected to personal attacks in their time of grief, defies logic.

Kelly’s statement seems to support the idea that the president unintentionally misspoke. Recalling the words of Gen. Joseph Dunford after the death of his own son in Afghanistan, Kelly said, “He was doing exactly what he wanted to do when he was killed. He knew what he was getting into by joining that one percent. He knew what the possibilities were because we were at war. And when he died he was surrounded by the best men on this earth, his friends. That’s what the President tried to say to the four families the other day.”

That’s what the President tried to say.

Kelly said that he had advised the president not to call the families of the fallen soldiers, but Trump had insisted. “If you’re not in the family, if you’ve never worn the uniform, if you’re not in combat, you can’t even begin to imagine how to make that call,” Kelly said.

It would be easy, for a distraught wife and mother, especially if they were not fans of Donald Trump in the first place, to read disrespect and callousness into the president’s comments. This is especially true if he did indeed start to ramble.

If there is a villain in the story, it is Rep. Wilson. It was Wilson who politicized the phone call. Even if the family members were offended by Trump’s remarks, it was Wilson used that pain for political gain. It was Wilson who has continually subjected the family to unnecessary pain by keeping the issue in the news. It is Wilson who has led much of the country to question the integrity of Sgt. Johnson’s family, who undoubtedly loved and cared for him very much.

At this point, both sides should stand down. Let’s agree that attacking Gold Star families, whether they are the Johnsons or the Kellys, Democrats or Republicans, liberal or conservative, should be off limits. Families of fallen soldiers are entitled to speak, but, in the name of decency, politicians should refrain from speaking for them.

When Cindy Sheehan attacked President Bush in 2005, his response was a great example of dignity, patience and honor. “I sympathize with Mrs. Sheehan,” Bush said at the time. “She feels strongly about her position, and she has every right in the world to say what she believes. This is America. She has the right to her position.”

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