Ed.: 102017 – Words: 1974 – Audio: N/A

This business about Sgt. La David Johnson’s tragic demise and the political blow up started by Trump and his phone call is just one tragedy on top of another.  Chief of Staff Kelly’s remarks today was a disappointment to me because he himself just continued the politics when he did that typical Trump defense.. attack the person attacking you.  It was sad Kelly has sunk to Trump’s level.  I had hopes he was going to be one of the “adults” in the administration.

This idea of the president providing condolences cannot be left up to extemporaneous chatter.  It has to be delicately scripted.. even only bullet point phrases.  Kelly pointed out a perfect example himself;

“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 he suggested to the President to say something similar to what Gen. Joseph Dunford told him on the death of Kelly’s own son.

“He was doing exactly what he wanted to do when he was killed. He knew what he was getting into by joining that 1%. He knew what the possibilities were because we were at war,” Kelly said, channeling Dunford’s words to him upon the death of Kelly’s son. “And when he died he was surrounded by the best men on this earth, his friends.”

Now in my judgment Dunford’s remarks were spot on proper.  But, when the President said to Mrs. Johnson, “He knew what he was getting into.”, it was totally out of line.  Here’s the reason… Trump was personally a complete stranger to Mrs. Johnson… Dunford and Kelly were linked professionally, had a working and private relationship, and both understood what had happened in the death of Kelly’s son… and the emotional toll.  They were, in fact, birds of a feather, best friends, where a condolence like that would be accepted as such.  Kelly would not necessarily have understood that when he suggested that Trump use similar language to Mrs. Johnson.  Being a Gold Star family member does not mean you can advise on expressing condolences.  A Gold Star family member knows the emotional toll of loss and mourning, not so much about extending universal condolences.

Honestly, Kelly is feeling a lot of remorse and guilt I am sure, for helping to put the Prez in this spot.  His intentions toward the President were true and honest and his admitted reflection of having to go to Arlington earlier that morning suggests he was truly troubled.  Being a general and a chief of staff does not mean you can do everything.  One has to be totally spaced out if he thinks that Kelly didn’t for a moment contemplate at Arlington his own personal continuance in his role.

Unfortunately, Kelly somehow decided to dump blame on someone else… Congresswoman Frederica Wilson of Florida.  Totally out of context.  She was present as a family friend to the Johnsons and listened on speaker on the phone provided by the casualty assistance officer.

Kelly was way off base in his accusation.

But having said that, Trump turned this into a political nightmare rather than just apologizing and moving on when he first blamed Congresswoman Wilson.

 

Understanding the making of condolences is diverse also follows in civilian life as well.

I’ve mentioned before I was under the employ of a funeral home for nearly five years.  I handled all facets of the operation, except the direct embalming process as that required licensure.  I was licensed to do cremations… but my main responsibility was tending to the families directly.  In my time there I performed over 100 traditional funerals and burials, met with nearly 500 families to make arrangements for cremation, or funeral, and burials.  I quickly learned that there is a distinct difference between families and family members on how you address condolences to them.  You learn to read the non-communicative signs, body language, degree of remorse and mourning.. it all plays a role regarding how you express sympathy for their dear departed.  But that was my business and I did it well.  Most people have no idea how to manage their own grief much less the grief of others… including presidents.

 

Regarding the disposition of service personnel killed in action,

…I am familiar with some of the processes.  Not known to most folks is that there are autopsies of the deceased.  You might think why given cause of death is usually obvious in battle… they died of battle injuries.  Well, the military can learn a wealth of information from these kinds of autopsies.  By determining the caliber of the bullets used they then know the kinds of weapons being used.  Sometimes the type of weapon used will leave a clue as to what country might be providing the arms to the enemy.  Also studied are the nature of the wounds and penetration characteristics to gain an understanding of the ballistics of the bullet in order to develop effective personal armor.  Shrapnel and RPG fragments can lead to the source and origin of manufacture and maybe what factory made them which can then become a target for our side.  Also, autopsies can reveal if any soldiers were killed by friendly fire, and thusly correct the error in the future.  So autopsies are not all about how they got killed and who to hold liable.  I do know that the nature of the injuries sustained early in the Iraq war due to roadside IED’s led to effective designs in armoring up the under carriage of Humvees in the field.

 

Some reflections of military funerals I have done…

By and large the military funerals I have been affiliated with have been the burials of veterans, not active duty KIA personnel.  Although I was involved in one funeral of a local soldier who was killed by an RPG in 2008.  We’ll get there in a bit.

But all veterans are entitled to a funeral with military honors.  Which means, free burial at a government cemetery, free headstone, and an honor guard.  The honor guard acts as pall bearers and also fires the 21 shot gun volley… with a bugler sounding taps, or a recording over a sound system.  They also fold the flag that is draped over the casket and then present it to the surviving parent or spouse.  But pretty much that’s in a perfect world.  The reality is often a bit different.

Honor guards are provided by a host military installation nearby.  Honor guards are also in high demand; old people die everywhere and family members want the ceremony for their departed loved one.  If the nearby military installation (and “nearby” is important.. they don’t travel hours away) is unable to provide an honor guard on the date/time required then it defaults to any local veteran’s organizations.. VFW or American Legion typically.  They will provide a volunteer member honor guard.  But many times we couldn’t even get a local VFW.  In those cases all we can do is explain that to the family.  There were many veteran funerals we handled that simply because of distance, timing, lack of personnel, honors simply could not be provided.

A lot of the funeral business is oft described as being a bit of “smoke & mirror”… we make things look good at all costs using whatever is available.  That includes improvising when certain officials can’t show up.  Funeral people assume the role of clergy when necessary, I would have the funeral assistants do some slightly choreographed routines in moving the casket or crowd control; all for show for the families.  When I had my first couple veteran funerals with no honor guard available… I had to think fast when the time came to remove the flag and fold it in the familiar triangle.  No one prepared me for this, or taught me how to fold the flag.. I just recalled my Boy Scout and ROTC days.  But the tricky part was presenting the folded flag to the surviving spouse.  Whoa.  I tried to recall some Hollywood movies.  I ended up centering on Clear & Present Danger… “On behalf of the President of the United States and a grateful nation…….”  One has to think on their feet in this business.  The importance to the family was not how important I was.. but how important my words were.  It was theater to be sure… but it was sincere for the families, and never pretentious.

 

Then came the tragic death of the local serviceman in Afghanistan.

If a serviceperson is killed in action then that gets absolute primary government attention.  Our funeral home was in a very rural county in Arizona and not easy to get to, and no major airport.  The military flew his remains by a small executive jet to an airport the next larger town over… along with the honor guard and the CAO (Casualty Assistance Officer) that had been coordinating with myself and the mother of the deceased prior.  This was more the precision honor guard you’d expect to see at Arlington.  From the moment the deceased soldier leaves Dover this honor guard is required to stay with the casket the entire way.  This means, they load the casket into the plane when they left, they removed the casket when the plane landed and put it into our hearse.  All this moving and transferring is done with complete military precision.  One member of the guard traveled in the seat next to the driver of the hearse.  A member of the honor guard never.. ever… leaves the presence of the casket until burial is completed.

The military handles all body embalming and preparation and the casket.  In this case the deceased was an open casket, although his injuries to his right side, hand & face, was bandaged to provide a very good appearance.  He was in complete uniform, with all badges and decorations.  All-in-all… not an inexpensive process to be sure… the cross-country flight, executive jet, class A honor guard (with equipment)… all that in itself being illustrative of the respect toward our fallen.

My boss, the funeral director, who I usually wanted out of my sight because he wasn’t that great with families, took it upon himself to make this funeral an entire local event.  He called up the fire department to use their pumping truck to carry the casket around town… there was the Patriot Motorcycle guys escorting.. all the veteran organizations were represented, and I think there was even a band as I recall.  It was a parade.  But our funeral home pretty much just stood by while the honor guard guys handled everything.  Obviously the deceased soldier brought the community together and that was the important thing.  His mother felt good about all the recognition.  The soldier, of course, deserved the pomp & circumstance for his sacrifice.

In case you’re wondering, the mother did not get a call from the President, likely due to the idea that the war was incurring more than just a few casualties and there is a rule of reasonableness practical side in the numbers; unlike now where a serviceman’s death is more rare.

 

In the end, like everything else human in this world.. it’s all determined by the infinite variety of our species.  No two of us are alike, no two of us eat the same way, love the same, or define our existence the same way.  We then do not mourn the same way, nor do we deal with death the same way.  All men may be equal under the law, but we forget that all men are not, in fact, equal within nature’s law.

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