She was standing under the trees at the Southeast gate just off Alexander Hamilton Street. The button picture of her son stood in stark contrast to the all white dress and wrap she was wearing. Her hair was perfectly coiffed. Her make-up was fresh and bright, masking the hurt beyond.
For a brief moment, it was just the two of us there.
“Are you excited?” I asked.
“I am,” she replied.
I didn’t have to ask if she was a Gold Star mother, I knew she was by the white she wore, but I did introduce myself as a Gold Star daughter. I asked her to tell me about her son.
Corporal Jonathon Castro. Killed in Mosul, Iraq. Dec. 21, 2004. He was 21.
“He was my only child,” she said.
Traffic flew past us. Birds chirped above us. The Secret Service stood watch in the guard house beside us.
“Your only child,” I repeated, softly. “I can’t imagine how you get out of bed each day.”
“It was hard at first,” she said. The hard was made bearable by the community of Gold Star moms. “There’s a group of five of us ‘Onlies’. Others like me who have lost their only child, too.”
This is what war looks like on the flip side of the Congressional Seal that deploys troops, that never considers the “Onlies” when they talk of “Winning” and “Resolve” and “Kick Ass”.
“The holidays are hard. Birthdays are the hardest.”
Jonathan would have turned 33 on May 22, had he not been in that mess hall attack. They were eating tacos, she told me. The medic had asked Jonathan if he had gotten the mail. He was supposed to have gotten the mail. Maybe if he’d stood up and said, Right Away, sir. Instead he said as soon as he finished his tacos. The medic turned his back, took half a step and an ear-piercing explosion hit the tent, knocked him down. Afterwards, his comrades had to pull him off of Jonathan, tell him to save those who could be saved. Jon was gone.
“When friends post pictures of their grandchildren on Facebook, that’s the hardest,” his mama said. Water leaked out the corner of her eyes. Her lips quivered. There will never be any grandchildren for the “Onlies.”
I hugged her, told her that my nephew David was there in Mosul with her son’s unit when that Mess Hall attack took place.
“He was with the Stryker Brigade out of Fort Lewis,” she asked.
“Yes,” I said. “They lost several guys. Remember the one they lost whose wife then went on to commit suicide?”
“Yes,” she said. “I think that happens more often than people realize. Read the death dates of the spouses on the back of those headstones at Arlington sometime. It tells a story.”
Other Gold Star family members began to arrive, to gather around us, to speak to us, unaware of the conversation that I’d just shared with Jonathan’s mom, the math teacher who gives a lesson to all her students every year to talk about what Memorial Day really means.
It’s a lesson she lives daily.
Her sacrifice earned her a ticket to a Gold Star breakfast with the president.
Every Gold Star family member felt honored by the invitation to the White House breakfast, but shouldn’t the honor be others? Those who get to spend a moment with us, learning about what sacrifice really means, hearing the stories of our loved ones missed and about all the life they are missing out on? Shouldn’t Congress be required to sit with each one of us, to hear our stories, to think about what it means to belong to the club of “Onlies”?
Instead the official at our table that morning, a kindly gentleman who runs one of those well-funded veteran organizations, asked us – those Sons and Daughters gathered around him – if we had ever been to the Wall, had ever touched our fathers’s names. We smirked and made snide comments about who would ask such a thing? Of course! we were tempted to shout.
I’m a Vietnam Veteran, he claimed.
Who’d you serve with? I asked.
He listed off the names of some of his comrades and laughed. Then said he served in Colorado and Texas and had done such a fine job of serving that not one NVA made it past their borders.
It’s a tiresome joke, meant to deflect from the fact that he was a Vietnam-Era veteran, not a Vietnam Vet. The difference being that one served stateside, while the others saw horrors that wake them in a sweat still, all these forty and fifty years later. Politicians are the ones who most often exploit the difference. They put Vietnam Veteran on their resumes and make the claim before thousands, that they, too, served.
Only it is altogether different and they know it. Among those of us in Gold Star families, among the veterans who bedded down in the Ia Drang and Quang Tri, it’s a lie. A half-truth meant to deceive and meant to garner an honor never earned.
Sometimes those of us who ought to know better give honor to those who never earned it, don’t deserve it and whose only intent is to exploit us.
Major Moses wanted to go to the Trump Rally that Rolling Thunder was hosting. It’s a historic event, he explained.
So are lynchings, I retorted, but I never want to see one.
I knew that Trump’s rally was simply an “Exploit the Veterans” Rally. A day of remembrances turned into a dog-and-pony campaign stop.
Major Moses knows that there is no one on earth I would go to a Donald Trump rally for other than him.
So we went, Major Moses and me, along with a handful of other Gold Star Sons and Daughters. Ari, the lone son with us, didn’t stay though. He left before Trump arrived. He couldn’t stomach the thought. Come with me, he begged. I’m headed to the Wall.
I can’t, I said. I promised Major Moses.
I did not, however, promise to be quiet.
Some country-western band was playing on stage. No one I’d ever heard of. Whatever Trump is doing with his campaign funds, he’s not spending it on entertainment or getting the crowd worked up.
Speaking of crowds, there wasn’t one.
The Washington Post called the crowd paltry, estimating 5,000 people in attendance. What a bunch of hooey.
The photo they used was shot from behind the podium where Trump spoke is a bit of trick photography. Taken from another angle one can see the difference. There were perhaps 500 hundred actual attendees for the rally.
There were plenty of people mulling about, gawkers who lined up along the security gate. They could have come in if they had wanted to go through the checkpoint. They weren’t interested enough in doing that.
So the entire plaza between the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and the steps leading to the pool, that plaza was empty, void of people. Gawkers gathered, but for the most part, visitors were going to and from Lincoln’s Memorial, The Wall, the Korean Memorial, or the World War II Memorial. Some were coming to and from the Rolling Thunder parade underway.
There was not 5,000 people in attendance, 500 maybe. There was no rush. There was plenty of space for seating. Nobody was shoving anyone to get a better look. I’ve seen larger crowds gather around Pat Boone at the Wall. (If you don’t know who Pat Boone is, perhaps there is a message embedded there.)
But Donald Trump has never let facts get in the way of self-promotion. The first words out of his mouth were a bald-face lie.
“Six-hundred thousand people are trying to get here but can’t,” he said. It would be a refrain he repeated often.
If you have heard one of his campaign speeches you have heard them all. It’s all the same inflammatory rhetoric that incites the easily excitable.
Only three remarks drew what could be described as thunderous applause. I bet you can guess what they were.
#1 We are going to build a Wall to Mexico and make Mexico pay for it.
#2 Hilary Clinton is trying to destroy the Second Amendment but we aren’t going to let her.
#3 Anything negative he said about Obama.
I couldn’t help but notice that Major Moses was the only black in the crowd. The only one in a DC crowd. Those gathered around were primarily white, primarily in their 40s and up.
What, pray tell, makes veterans like Rolling Thunder support a candidate who got four deferments to Vietnam before finally receiving a medical disqualification?
One simple thing: He’s not Hillary.
That’s what I told the British television host who asked me why veterans would support Trump: They aren’t voting for Trump. They are voting against Hillary.
The plane was late getting out of DC, so I missed my connection to Seattle, found myself stuck at the airport in Minneapolis for the night, along with dozens of others. If you should ever find yourself stuck there, find the lovely Delta agent with the Scottish brogue. She rustled me up a fold out mat, a couple of blankets and pillows, then carried them upstairs to what she said would be the quietest spot in the airport.
I slept fitfully from midnight to 3 a.m. When I woke, a big man with a white beard inquired if I knew when the gates would open.
Four-thirty, I said. You got delayed, too?
Nah, he said. Just a six-hour layover, my secretary messed up.
Where you headed?
Alaska. I’m on the corporate board for Ducks Unlimited. What about you? Where are you from?
Me? I live in Oregon but Columbus, Ga is home.
You know Bill Heard? he asked.
Why, yes, I replied. I wrote a whole chapter on him in one of my books.
Oh, yeah, he said. My son’s a writer. His book just sold 2 million copies.
Really? What did he write?
I don’t read apocalyptic literature no matter who writes it, nor do I watch FOX News so I was unfamiliar with Johnnie Moore or his meteoric rise among evangelicals. That’s okay, his daddy filled me in. Told me how smart and wise and successful his son is, obviously a proud daddy and rightfully so it appears. (For the record, we don’t have TV so I don’t watch any news. I get mine from reading primarily, or listening to NPR).
A Jerry Falwell protégé, Johnnie Moore has spoken before some of the largest congregations in the nation. His daddy showed me a clip of his boy speaking at Saddleback. I like Rick and Kay Warren. Respect them and their mission.
His boy transformed Liberty University, his daddy claimed. Transformed it into one of the leading Christian universities of the nation, maybe the world.
Well, tell me, I said, what do you think about Liberty endorsing Donald Trump? As a Christian university and all, I mean.
Jerry Falwell has the right to endorse whomever he likes, he said.
Yes, I agreed. But what do you think about a Christian university endorsing a political candidate?
I’m a Trump supporter, he said.
I surmised that already but that wasn’t my question, I reminded him.
What do you think about a Christian university supporting a man like Trump, who doesn’t reflect any Christian values?
At that point, the little woman who had been behind the chairs rose up and proclaimed rather vehemently: Donald Trump is an ass.
Her husband laughed. Then admitted he was not really a fan of Donald Trump, who he thought to be full of himself, but he was voting against Hillary.
Exactly what I suspected, I said.
I’m 59 years old, he said. There won’t be a white man my age and older voting for Hillary, he claimed. And another thing, he added, a lot of women aren’t going to vote for her, either. They are going to vote exactly the way their husbands tell them to.
Oh. Wow. Did he really just say that?
He pulled up his son’s bio online. I read through it, making note of the connections to big names in the evangelical community and big monies attached to those big names and I thought of Major Moses.
Moses speaks seven languages fluently.
When Johnnie Moore was writing his book about Defying ISIS, Major Moses was fighting them. Johnnie Moore has never served in the military, but he has strong opinions on how our military ought to fight. He speaks in a divisive rhetoric common among evangelicals and politicians. Moore, is, in fact, building a lucrative career off such language, playing to the fears of the people, particularly the faith-based community of people who see the world in apocalyptic absolutes. Moore’s father told me he’s signed a very lucrative five-book deal.
While Major Moses faces another deployment to yet another political hotspot, Johnnie Moore will continue to speak before large audiences, playing to the fears of religious zealots.
Follow the paper trail.
That’s old-school journalism for “if you want to connect the dots, start with the dollar bills”.
Moore’s Public Relations firm, The Kairos Company, issued a press release while I was in Washington, D.C. (You want a money trail? You should read up on them in their own words: http://www.thekcompany.co/who-we-are/).
It reads in part: “Donald Trump has agreed to meet with some of the nation’s most prominent Evangelical leaders- a meeting seen as critical to garnering the support from social conservatives.
“Our goal is to be able to have a conversation that could lead to a better understanding of what Donald Trump has to offer to the country,” said Family Research Council President Tony Perkins.
War is big business. So is religion in America.
If money mattered to me, I’d build a writing career that demonizes whole populations of people, remind everyone that we Christians are the good guys and the brown-skinned Muslims are people to be feared.
If money mattered, Major Moses said he would never have become a soldier in the first place. He has friends who have tried to recruit him to work as a consultant to war-mongers. His language skills alone make him highly marketable.
And isn’t marketable what everyone is seeking to be these days?
Isn’t it Donald Trump’s success in the marketplace what makes him palatable to so many voters?
If a poor man said the things Donald Trump says in his campaign speeches, we would think him a racist lunatic.
Instead, because he is rich and being rich is what matters most, the man who refers to our nation’s press corps as sleaze balls, instead of respecting the role of the First Amendment as critical to a democracy, may very well be our next president.
I’ll be honest, Johnnie Moore’s father said to me. “I didn’t want my son going to Iraq or Afghanistan, fighting in those wars.”
“No, of course not,” I said. “Why should you? Businessmen like you and Donald Trump have always been able to keep your loved ones off the front lines. It’s men like my father, the poor, who most often go and fight and die.”
I took President Obama a copy of After the Flag has been Folded, the memoir I wrote about the aftermath of war. We shared the same editor on our books about our fathers. I didn’t get to hand the book to him personally, so who knows if he’ll ever read it. You can’t get the President of the United States a gift. It has to be inspected for Anthrax and such first. His social secretary called, though, so I know they have it. I pray he does get it, does read it. Someone recently said it should be required reading for all high school students. I think it should be required for all members of Congress.
When President Obama shook my hand on Monday, I asked him to please consider staying eight more years. I can’t imagine voting for Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. I can’t imagine either of those individuals serving as Commander-in-Chief. I don’t respect either candidate.
Being Commander-in-Chief is a serious job.
That person controls how many more “Onlies” will become Gold Star Moms like Jonathan’s mom.
That person controls how many more Sons and Daughters will grow up visiting their mothers and fathers at a marble slab, the way I do and have since I was nine.
War is the universe’s way of saying “I’m not fucking around with your politics and your religions.”
Obama laughed and pulled me into a hug when I asked him to stay eight more years.
He doesn’t want the job.
There doesn’t seem to be a decent person who does.
My heart is heavy, people.
We don’t need more meetings to know what Donald Trump has to offer this country. We know what kind of man he is and isn’t.
We need to fall on our face more and beg God for mercy to intervene, to save us from ourselves.
For Major Moses’s sake and all the men and women like him, who serve faithfully, truthfully, and for all the right reasons.
Karen Spears Zacharias is a Gold Star Daughter and author of After the Flag has been Folded and Where’s Your Jesus Now?