President Donald Trump’s call to the grieving widow of SGT La David Johnson has created an imbroglio between the White House and a Florida Democratic Congresswoman.
Johnson was one of four soldiers from the 3rd Special Forces Group who were killed two weeks ago in Niger in an ambush while they were training and advising the local troops on a Foreign Internal Defense (FID) mission. The Green Berets and support troops were returning from a mission when they were ambushed by a numerically superior force with rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns. Johnson, a wheeled vehicle mechanic was initially separated from the other troops and was presumed missing but was found a few days later, having been killed in the fighting.
Trump’s call to Myeshia Johnson took place in a car right after she had met the casket of her husband at the airport. Like so many scenes of those in the past, it was an emotional, gut-wrenching experience for Johnson’s widow, who not only lost her husband but the father of her young children. That’s where the story differs.
Florida Rep. Frederica Wilson, claims that she was in the car with Johnson and that the President told Myeshia Johnson that “he knew what he signed up for, but I guess it still hurt.” Wilson also claims that the President didn’t even know the soldier’s name and that after the call, Johnson “broke down” sobbing. Wilson’s claim was corroborated by Cowanda Jones-Johnson, a family member who raised Johnson and who was also in the car at the time of the call.
Wilson later spoke on CNN and lambasted Trump saying that “Mr. Trump is crazy” and later told a CNN reporter that the President “has a brain disorder.” As one would expect, it was quickly picked up by the national media and became an even bigger story after the President responded, first in a meeting in the Cabinet Room and then like he’s normally done via Twitter.
President Trump first denial was at the White House to the reporters, there for the Cabinet meeting, “I didn’t say what that congresswoman said. Didn’t say it at all,” Trump told reporters during a meeting on tax reform in the Cabinet Room. “She knows it. And she now is not saying it. I did not say what she said.” He added that he “had a very nice” conversation with Johnson’s widow, and that “she sounded like a lovely woman.”
Trump said that he had proof that Wilson made up her claims but neither he nor White House press secretary Sarah Sanders offered any proof of it. Sanders did state that there are no recordings of the President’s phone calls but alluded that there were many other people in the room during the conversation. That is when the situation devolved into a Twitter war of words began, with Trump stating,
Later she spoke with a CNN affiliate and added more fuel to the already stoked fire. “That is what stood out in everyone’s heart,” she said. “You don’t say that. He is the President of the United States. This is a soldier who gave his life for his country. He is a hero in our minds, in our community’s minds. That is an insult to the entire Miami Gardens community,…And I hope he didn’t say this to the other three families.”
Wilson also claims that she was “livid” at the President’s remarks and tried to grab the phone in the car to speak with the President but was blocked from doing so by a Master Sergeant from the military, who was no doubt part of the Survivor Assistance detail. Which was the correct answer on two parts. First, the proper protocol is that the President’s conversations with families are private and for them only. And the second is that the last thing you need is for a third party to inflame nerves of the bereaved family that are already stretched to the breaking point.
Having been involved in a couple of these situations in the past, the feelings of the family are always to be treated very, very carefully. Every word spoken, every action taken has to be under the consideration that the family has had an integral part of it ripped away and never to return. They are dealing with the heartbreak of losing a loved one and on the day that the casket returns home is a gut-wrenching, experience when all of the bad feelings become reality. We’ve watched this play out many times, too many times and any outsiders, be they the military assistance teams or the local representative, lending their support has to be there as a calming influence.
Just one wrong word can be catastrophic. During the funeral for my Team Sergeant from Panama in 1990 at a tiny North Carolina graveyard, the immediate family of his and his in-laws harbored a deep grudge against one another. At the gravesite for him, just one misspoken word sparked a melee with punches thrown by too many people to count. And our pallbearers and honor guard who were there to say goodbye to our comrade had to break it up while in uniform. It was a situation, I hope never to see repeated.
Did the President actually say these words? I don’t know, but given his lack of filter in the past, I tend to believe it. Was it a deliberate attempt to hurt the feelings of SGT Johnson’s widow? No, I don’t buy that a bit. But as we’ve seen in the past, President Trump’s lack of filter and speaking off the cuff can get him in trouble.
And of all the times he needed to think thru what he was going to say, this was it. Losing a soldier for the military is a sad fact of the job. We as soldiers, know this better than anyone. We accept it, know that it is, in fact, the worst part of the job. We know that the table we sit around will have an occasional empty chair. It is part of what we were aware of when we volunteered. But he wasn’t speaking to the troops, and that’s where he needed to choose his words very carefully.
Nothing that he could say will take away the pain and anguish of Myeshia Johnson or any of the other three families from the 3rd SFG who lost loved ones on that day in Niger. But his words will stick with them for the rest of their lives because when they think back on the day his body came home, they will remember the call from the President of the United States. He speaks for the country as a whole and they should be words that stick with them in a positive, healing and caring way. There should never be any gray area in this…ever.
Regardless of whether he said it as it is being portrayed or any other way, he failed this family on the worst possible day for them. And because of that, we as a country didn’t do them right either. They deserve that.
Photos: US Army, White House, Twitter