By now we are all familiar with President Trump's call to the widow of Sgt. La David T. Johnson, the African American soldier who was killed in an ambush on Oct. 4, along with three other Green Berets, in Niger. It is a story that has left me in tears, but not for the reasons you might think. My reaction is much more complicated than the interaction of Trump with Myeshia Johnson.
Trump reportedly called Johnson's pregnant widow on Oct. 17 and told her that her husband "knew what he was signing up for, but I guess it hurts anyway." Johnson was on her way to the Miami airport to receive the casket with the remains of her husband. One can question the tenor of his remarks — clearly Johnson did not take them well. But that is not what started me crying.
The day before the call, Trump was questioned at a news conference about his lack of public comment on the four soldiers killed in Niger — the most killed in one incident on his watch in an African country few knew we were fighting in. His response, pivoting as usual, was to attack former presidents about their interactions with Gold Star families. He claimed that previous commanders-in-chief never or rarely called the families of fallen service members. They actually did so regularly.
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, in his own news conference, dutifully tried to explain what he told Trump to convey during the condolence calls. But even a retired four-star Marine general, one who has lost a son in battle, was unable to provide cover for Trump's insensitive, ham-handed delivery that appalled and offended U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson (D., Fla.), family members, and especially the wife of the fallen soldier. Still, this isn't what caused me to react so emotionally.
What really got to me was the larger context here, the issues of race that are intertwined with so much of what happens with this president and his administration.
One cannot look at the administration's reaction to the deaths of the soldiers in Niger without recalling the racist events in Charlottesville, Va., this past summer. Nor can one ignore the constant tweets and threats from Trump with respect to the protests by the NFL players, the majority of whom are African American. Nor can one ignore the president's ongoing battle with Jemele Hill, the ESPN sportscaster.
The clear subtexts underlying Trump's actions are that African Americans are not "real Americans" — for example, look how those football players disrespect our flag. That is a canard that is as old as this republic — in a nation that African Americans have died for since Crispus Attucks was killed in 1770 at the Boston Massacre.
So all that was in my mind when I saw the video of Myeshia Johnson, with her young daughter in tow, sobbing uncontrollably over the flag-draped casket of her husband. I sobbed right along with her. What a juxtaposition to see this African American woman shedding tears on that flag, while the race-baiting Trump, who did everything he could to avoid military service, wraps himself in that flag. So, yes, I cried.
I also cried when I thought about my own former wife, who, along with our 3-month-old son, received a telegram at her home when I was a Marine serving in Vietnam. I cry thinking about my family telling me how hysterical she was just having that telegram handed to her at the front door. She could not open it, fearing the worst. She didn't realize the protocol at the time, that if a service person is killed, the family receives not just a telegram but personal contact by military personnel. Another family member had to open the telegram and tell her that I was wounded, but that I would be OK.
So in recent days I cried for Myeshia Johnson. I cried for my former wife. I cried for my military brothers. I cried for my African American brothers and sisters. Most of all, though, I cried for our country for having this person be the commander-in-chief.