Much has been made of President Trump’s phone calls with Gold Star families of American soldiers who lost their lives in Niger last week. A controversy has begun over how often, to whom, and why presidents make the calls.
White House Chief of Staff Gen. Kelly, a Gold Star father himself, described his excruciating loss and the difficult task of calling and consoling a family from the press podium on Thursday, as IJR previously reported. Kelly said:
“If you elect to call a family like this, it’s about the most difficult thing you can imagine. There’s no perfect way to make that phone call.”
“No perfect way,” and many past presidents would agree. One former president who is universally respected for his treatment of troops and their families is George W. Bush. Bush sent tens of thousands of troops to war. When some did not return home, or returned home injured, he made himself available to the grieving families.Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images Eric Draper/White House via Getty Images Eric Draper/White House via Getty Images Eric Draper/White House via Getty Images White House photo by Eric Draper White House photo by Eric Draper
In his post-presidency, Bush has devoted an immense amount of resources to veterans’ issues. He holds bike rides and golf tournaments for injured vets. He memorializes their struggles in books and paintings, the proceeds of which go to foundations to help veterans and their families.
However, perhaps the finest thing Bush has done is set an example: an example of how to treat a family that is suffering unimaginable heartbreak. In her book, “And the Good News Is,” former W. Bush Press Secretary Dana Perino describes beautiful interactions with Bush and wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Hospital, which he visited often.Paul Morse/White House via Getty Images White House Photo by Eric Draper White House Photo by Eric Draper Eric Draper/White House via Getty Images
One such interaction will bring tears to your eyes, and is worth the read [emphasis added]:
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The soldier was intubated. The president talked quietly with the family at the foot of the patient’s bed. I looked up at the ceiling so that I could hold back tears.
After he visited with them for a bit, the president turned to the military aide and said, “Okay, let’s do the presentation.” The wounded soldier was being awarded the Purple Heart, given to troops that suffer wounds in combat.
Everyone stood silently while the military aide in a low and steady voice presented the award. At the end of it, the Marine’s little boy tugged on the president’s jacket and asked, “What’s a Purple Heart?”
The president got down on one knee and pulled the little boy closer to him. He said, “It’s an award for your dad, because he is very brave and courageous, and because he loves his country so much. And I hope you know how much he loves you and your mom, too.”
As he hugged the boy, there was a commotion from the medical staff as they moved toward the bed.
The Marine had just opened his eyes. I could see him from where I stood.
The CNO held the medical team back and said, “Hold on, guys. I think he wants the president.”
The president jumped up and rushed over to the side of the bed. He cupped the Marine’s face in his hands. They locked eyes, and after a couple of moments the president, without breaking eye contact, said to the military aide, “Read it again.”
So we stood silently as the military aide presented the Marine with the award for a second time. The president had tears dripping from his eyes onto the Marine’s face. As the presentation ended, the president rested his forehead on the Marine’s for a moment.
However, since our national conversation today is concerning respect to the families of the fallen, the interaction Perino describes between Bush and a mother of a soldier who was dying is an instructive master class on how to treat a hurting family [emphasis added]:
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One mom and dad of a dying soldier from the Caribbean were devastated, the mom beside herself with grief. She yelled at the president, wanting to know why it was her child and not his who lay in that hospital bed.
Her husband tried to calm her and I noticed the president wasn’t in a hurry to leave—he tried offering comfort but then just stood and took it, like he expected and needed to hear the anguish, to try to soak up some of her suffering if he could.
Later as we rode back on Marine One to the White House, no one spoke.
But as the helicopter took off, the president looked at me and said, “That mama sure was mad at me.” Then he turned to look out the window of the helicopter. “And I don’t blame her a bit.”
One tear slipped out the side of his eye and down his face. He didn’t wipe it away, and we flew back to the White House.
That is how you do it.