There are these documents most every Gold Star family has stashed somewhere. The signatures on those documents change from era to era, but the White House seal, it stays the same. The ones I have are over 50 years old now. They belonged to my mother but she passed them on to me – the document keeper of the family.
There’s the Regret-to-Inform telegram confirming that Staff Sgt. David P. Spears was KIA on July 24, 1966.
There’s the Letter of Sympathy sent from the United States president.
The one I have is signed by Lyndon B. Johnson. The one Ryan Owens’s parents and wife received was signed by Donald J. Trump. The one my friend Linnie Blankenbecler received was signed by George W. Bush. The wording of the letter is pretty standard fare – all about how our loved ones made the greatest sacrifice that could ever be made and that a grateful nation thanks us.
There’s a lot of traditions in this country surrounding the death of the fallen, but I think my own veteran brother said it best when he summed it up decades after our father was buried: People quit thinking about what happens to the families.
In our case – as Gold Star families of the Vietnam War – that was particularly true. We didn’t even receive the traditional Gold Star pin until nearly 40 years after our father died, and did so even then only because Patty Lee, another Gold Star daughter from Vietnam War, put up a stink until some Congressional leader realized Patty wasn’t going to go away or give up. You wouldn’t think fighting for a Gold Star pin is something families of the fallen would have to do, would you?
I bet you’d be shocked to discover the fights that widows and children, mothers and fathers have to wage once that flag is folded. Fights for college benefits. Fights for medical care. Fights for insurance. Fights for retirement benefits. Fights for Social Security benefits. Fights between the Gold Star survivors themselves. The stories I’ve heard. The stories I could tell you.
Any of you who have ever lost a loved one knows how messy things can get, so many arrangements to take care of, so many details to tend to. All that becomes even more complicated when a military bureaucracy is figured in. The thing a Gold Star family realizes almost immediately is how when a soldier is killed it’s not a private family matter. A whole nation of people want to lay claim to that death. They mean well, of course. Most of them do, anyway. But the truth is that there is a whole lot of non-profits and for-profits that make their bread-and-butter off the death of fallen soldiers. We don’t hear much about that in the civilian world. That’s our fault, really, because it is so complicated for us Gold Star family members.
Recently while watching a documentary about the assassination of JFK, I paid extra close attention to the film footage of Jackie O. While still in mortified shock, she had to stand alongside Lyndon B. Johnson, a man her husband didn’t particularly trust, and witness his swearing in. At that point, nobody even knew if perhaps LBJ didn’t have something to do with JFK’s death. Ponder that for a moment. I see a lot of my own mother’s reactions in the way Jackie O conducted herself. The stricken and drawn face. The striving to always do the honorable thing. The complexities of trying to accommodate a public while longing for the privacy to bury the man she loved always.
My mom never spoke ill of the Army until decades after my father died. Only then, and only when I pressed her, did she admit to me how abandoned she felt by the military that swore to honor her. The truth was, once my father was in the ground, and we were delivered back to our sorry little trailer house, the Army never again checked on us to see how we were doing. Widows from Iraq and Afghanistan have a term for the abandonment they experienced after their husbands were buried: “Kicked to the curb”. I wrote all about my own mother’s journey in After the Flag has been Folded. It was painful and dark to write about. Many a person has told me that book is hard to read. Try living it is what I usually think but rarely say.
Americans love a flag-draped coffin.
Really they do.
It’s an ugly truth about us but a flag-draped coffin fills our hearts with a special kind of pride. And if we are Christians and somebody happens to read that Scripture about “No greater love has any man than to lay down his life for his brother”, well, you can just mop us all up. Nothing swells our nationalistic pride better than an analogy tying fallen soldiers to a godly sacrifice.
Never mind that such a sacrifice was the result of a totally mucked up mission. As was the case with my father. And that of Navy Seal Ryan Owens.
It took me years of research – literally years of strong-armed letter-writing campaigns and aggressive investigating research – to get to the truth of my father’s death. I won’t go into all that here. It’s all in the book. But let’s suffice it to say, my investigation upset a lot of people, including my own mother who quit speaking to me for some time. And it also worried several of the men who were in the field with my father that day. They all worried over the same thing: Can she handle the truth of what happened?
Turns out I could handle it. But in order to handle it, I have to avoid certain triggers. I have found that increasingly hard to do since Trump took office. You know by now that I have absolutely no respect for Trump. None. Zilch. Nothing he ever says or does is ever going to change that for me. Nothing. Because he was rich – or his daddy was rich – he was able to obtain five deferments to the war that cost my father his life and our family a lifetime of sacrifices.
I understand that the same American public, who will jump to their feet and declare that Trump has never been more presidential than in the moments in which he paid tribute to Navy Seal Ryan Owens, will likely roll their eyes and tell their spouses that I really need to just get over my father’s death. Deal with it. Grow up.
That is never going to happen. You see I miss my father, have missed my father, in ways you will never begin to understand unless you too are a Gold Star family member. There are plenty of us around, even if you don’t notice us. And here’s the thing almost all of us understand: A president who refused to serve in a war isn’t fit to be a Commander-in-Chief. He isn’t. He never will be. And he can wax eloquently all he wants in front of the applauding masses about the sacrifices, but all that talk won’t quell the questions that each of us has had to answer for ourselves over and over again: What was it all for? Was it worth it?
Presidents and their people always seek to assure Gold Star families that the sacrifices are worth it.
What else are they going to do?
LBJ was never going to send out a letter to my mother telling her that he was really second-guessing sending troops into Vietnam, seeing how badly it was all turning out.
George W. Bush has a new book out, a retrospective of paintings in which he seeks to honor the sacrifices of some of the troops he sent into Iraq. He is never going to confess it to the public, but everybody wonders: Is this Bush’s way of making amends for sending men and women off to fight in a war that should never have been?
And Trump wasn’t even in office long enough to unpack his bags before he signed off on a mission that not only cost Navy Seal Ryan Owens his life, but the lives of 30 others, including 15 Yemeni women and children. Even an 8-year-old child. A little girl about the same age as Trump’s own granddaughter. Trump’s press secretary Sean Spicer as much as dared Americans to question the value of the mission that cost Navy Seal Ryan Owens’s life.
Yet, question is exactly what Ryan’s father is doing. He’s called for a full-blown investigation, as well he should have.
Of course, many news pundits saw Trump’s tribute to the Widow Owens as his most presidential moment. And I suppose in some ways that’s true, if what they mean by being presidential is that Trump sought to capitalize and exploit the family of the fallen, the way presidents have done throughout history.
The truth, however, is that presidents have their own self-serving reasons for paying such tributes, don’t they?
In our family’s case, it was to cover-up the fact that my father wasn’t killed by an enemy solider. He was killed by one of his very own men. A good friend, in fact. Shortly before After the Flag was Folded was published, I received a certified letter from the widow of that man. She threatened to sue me if I wrote what I had uncovered in my investigation into my father’s death.
All those men I had tracked down who were with my father that day? They worried that I couldn’t handle the truth of my father’s death because for decades the Army had lied to me, lied to my mother, covered-up how my father died – to protect us, the Army claimed.
The truth is these presidential tributes paid to the families of the fallen often have less to do with honor than a president’s disturbing attempt at justifying wars that should never have been waged or missions that were always misguided.
All for sacrifices that were never necessary in the first place.
Or as people used to say to me whenever they found out my father died in Vietnam: What a waste. His death was in vain.
I suspect soon enough, the Widow Owens will forget the vainglory of Trump’s tribute and begin to question whether her husband’s sacrifice was necessary. Or had it all been staged to make a president look more presidential?
Karen Spears Zacharias is a Gold Star Daughter and author of After the Flag has been Folded (William Morrow) and the forthcoming Christian Bend (Mercer University Press).