The recent kerfuffle over what President Donald Trump did or did not say to the widow of a Special Forces soldier killed in Niger brought back some uncomfortable memories about just how difficult it is to say the right thing to the grieving next-of-kin of a service member who has been killed in action.
So often it seems that no matter what you say, it is always inadequate and when heard in the midst of grief can be misconstrued as insensitive or disrespectful.
There’s no right way to have that conversation, as I painfully learned during my last 14 months in the Marine Corps.
From late 1967 to late 1968, during the Tet Offensive and the siege of Khe Sanh, I was assigned to the Casualty Section at Headquarters Marine Corps.
My specific duty was to keep track of the personal effects of Marines killed in Vietnam. It was largely an administrative job, ensuring that the paperwork for the return of personal items to the parents or wives or other relatives of Marines who died overseas was properly filed.
If the items returned did not meet the expectations of the relatives, it was my job to initiate searches to try to determine why certain items were missing.
Wedding rings and religious medals were the most sought-after reminders of a young Marine who had lost his life in a war that had become increasingly unpopular. Those items often were not recoverable because of the extent or nature of the wounds from booby traps, artillery or mortar shells or numerous gunshots.
So my civilian boss would either have me write a letter or he would tell the family by phone: “Due to the circumstances of your (son’s, husband’s, brother’s) death, certain items of personal effects were not recoverable.”
Usually that was enough to mollify the families, but occasionally they would press the issue and demand more details. And occasionally I would have to take those telephone calls.
I had been given no training, no instructions, no clue about what to say or how to deal with those uncomfortable situations. I don’t think I have ever felt so useless and inadequate in my life. It seemed to me that no matter what I said, it was the wrong thing.
So I am not surprised that Trump, who is not particularly political when it comes to speaking about much of anything, would stumble his way through his condolence call to Myeshia Johnson, the widow of Army Sgt. La David Johnson.
Trump’s chief of staff, retired Marine Gen. John Kelly, whose son was killed in Afghanistan, advised Trump not to make the call. Trump ignored him.
Nor am I surprised that Myeshia Johnson was upset or angry or felt disrespected by how inarticulate Trump may or may not have been during the call.
Even now, 50 years later, I inwardly cringe at how badly I handled those situations.
Thankfully, though, I did not have to deal with some cowboy hat-wearing fool jumping into the middle of a family’s grief to try to make a political issue out of a soldier’s death simply because she doesn’t like the president.
What U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson did by taking Trump to task for his remarks was not only reprehensible, it was horribly disrespectful to Sgt. Johnson and his family because it took the focus from him and his death and put it on her.
Just a few years after I left the Marine Corps, I encountered another of those awkward, not-sure-what-to-say situations with the mother of a soldier who had been killed in Vietnam. This one also made national news.
In August 1970, Army Spec. Pondexteur Eugene Williams of Fort Pierce, Fla., was killed in a mortar barrage and brought home for burial. His mother, a minimum wage cafeteria worker named Mary Campbell, had seen an advertisement in the local newspaper for free burial plots for honorably discharged veterans.
Campbell called the cemetery requesting a plot. The cemetery manager agreed over the phone to provide the plot, but when Campbell showed up at the cemetery, the manager balked. She was black and the cemetery had restrictive clauses in its deeds limiting burials to whites.
Fort Pierce, a small, coastal community where citrus and cattle, not tourism, were the primary economic factors, was highly segregated at that time and the idea of a black GI being buried among whites was anathema to those who owned plots in the cemetery, and the relatives of those buried there.
As I recall, though, there was not a single complaint from those already in residence at the cemetery.
Campbell came to the newspaper to protest what she felt was an injustice. I had gone to work at the paper just two months earlier and the story eventually fell to me to cover.
Just a few days after the story broke, a federal lawsuit was filed seeking an injunction to force the cemetery to allow Williams’ burial there.
As the court fight was pending, I remember walking into the funeral home that handled most of the black residents who died in Fort Pierce. Williams’ casket, draped with an American flag, sat in a corner. His mother sat next to it, alone in the room lit only by the single spotlight illuminating the casket.
I don’t remember exactly what I said to her, but I do remember feeling horribly awkward offering my condolences before asking her about the controversy that now enveloped her.
I do remember how dignified and polite she was in answering my questions.
She said she wanted nothing more than to bury her son in a nice cemetery that she could visit frequently. He had fought for his country, and now she wanted the country to fight for him.
Within just a few days, a federal judge in Miami ordered the cemetery to permit Williams’ burial there.
Despite threats of violence, Williams eventually was buried in the formally all-white cemetery with full military honors following a funeral that attracted so much attention it had to be held in the local National Guard Armory.
The plot where Williams is buried came not from the cemetery as it had promised, however, but from a local woman who owned several plots there. She was white and said she was doing it because she thought an injustice had been done to both Williams and his mother.
Williams’ mother handled her grief with grace and dignity, even when ardent segregationists threatened her and her son’s grave.
When my stepson went to Iraq some years ago, I told my wife about those experiences and how difficult it is when a service member dies overseas, not only for those who receive the news, but for those whose task it is to deliver that news and all that happens in the aftermath.
“I’m not sure how I’ll handle it if something happens to him,” my wife said at the time, “but he and I both knew the risk when he signed up.”
He returned home safely.
Ron Martz is Marine Corps veteran (1965-68), journalist and former educator. He lives in Northeast Georgia. His commentaries appear monthly on the Sunday Viewpoint page. Contact him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.