Before my husband deploys, he has a ritual that is familiar to many service members. He sits down with a generously poured bourbon, and he writes letters. One for his adult daughter, Rosalind. One for each of our little boys, Teddy and Antonio. One for his grandma, who raised him, and his family in Texas. One for me.
His process is solitary, but the last time he wrote these letters at our dining table, I walked by him on my way to the kitchen. He was crying as his pen moved across the paper.
He returned home safely. The letters went unread. I found them in the bottom of a desk drawer last week while I was packing up our house to move, still sealed, “Do not open unless I’m gone” written on them.
They were on my mind a couple days later, when Jeffrey Goldberg’s article in The Atlantic came out, detailing how President Donald Trump had called American Marines killed in World War I “losers” and “suckers.”
It also describes how on Memorial Day in 2017, Trump had visited Arlington National Cemetery with his then-secretary of Homeland Security, Gen. John Kelly, whose son, Robert, a young Marine Corps officer who died after stepping on a landmine in Afghanistan in 2010, was buried there.
“He was 29,” Goldberg writes. “Trump was meant, on this visit, to join John Kelly in paying respects at his son’s grave, and to comfort the families of other fallen service members. But according to sources with knowledge of this visit, Trump, while standing by Robert Kelly’s grave, turned directly to his father and said, ‘I don’t get it. What was in it for them?’”
It’s a crude question. And it misses the point.
“To serve something higher than yourself is why most veterans from my view, from my experience, why they join,” says Kait Wyatt, a Marine Corps veteran whose husband, Cpl. Derek Wyatt, also a Marine, died in Afghanistan in 2010.
First Lt. Robert Kelly was her husband’s platoon commander. He also commanded retired Corporal Sebastian Guadalupe Gallegos.
“They’re doing it out of a sense of patriotism. And that patriotism is not loyalty to a specific political party or politician but to America,” explains Gallegos, who lost his arm in an explosion in Afghanistan.
Americans serve to protect their brothers and sisters in arms.
Major Gen. Paul Eaton served more than three decades in the Army, taking his experience training young American infantrymen to Iraq, where he was responsible for training Iraqi forces.
His father, Air Force Col. Norman Eaton, died in the Vietnam War in 1969, flying missions to deliver supplies and providing close air support to Special Forces.
“He was shot down over a Ho Chi Minh trail section just outside of Vietnam in Laos,” Eaton explained in a video he posted online criticizing Trump’s remarks about service members, holding his father’s recovered dog tag.
“The best men and women in the United States of America are found in the Armed Forces of the United States military. Brave men and women. They’re not just brave, they’re smart - and they’re wise.”
But how does a commander in chief who wraps himself in images of the military, and is responsible for sending them into harm’s way, not understand this?
To borrow Trump’s words, what’s in it for him?
Members of the military appear to be on this President’s mind only when they serve a purpose.
In Trump’s case, that’s popularity by association.
The military is the most esteemed American institution. Sixty percent of Americans “express[ed] a great deal of confidence in leaders of the military,” according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in 2020.
By comparison, 13% say the same of the press, and just 6% have that confidence in Congress.
For Trump, the military is a muscle for him to flex, whether it’s including National Guard military police in the federal law enforcement presence that pushed back peaceful protesters outside the White House, or deploying active duty troops to the US-Mexico border during an immigration crisis – even though they’re constitutionally prohibited from serving a useful role there – or an expensive taxpayer-funded Fourth of July military parade that figured prominently in the political videos aired during the Republican National Convention.
The military is not nearly as important to Trump when the transaction goes the other way: when they need him. As dozens of US troops in Iraq suffer traumatic brain injuries – “headaches,” the President called them – as a result of an retaliatory Iranian strike Trump wanted to minimize. Or when Russia places reported bounties on the heads of US service members in Afghanistan and the President doesn’t so much as mention it when he talks to Vladimir Putin.
When Gold Star families exercise the rights that their fallen loved ones swore an oath to protect – like the Khan family, who lost their son Humayun to a suicide bomber in Iraq and spoke out against Trump at the 2016 Democratic convention – the President maligns them.
And just this week, as Trump criticized who he considers likely sources for The Atlantic story, he was again trying to drive a wedge between rank and file service members and military leaders, accusing his own defense officials of wanting “to do nothing but fight wars so that all of those wonderful companies that make the bombs and make the planes and make everything else stay happy.”
This politicization of the military is what incensed Kait Wyatt this week, when she saw a picture of Trump’s 2017 cemetery visit that she had not seen before. In it, the President is speaking with Gen. Kelly. Vice President Mike Pence looks on as a cameraman captures the moment amid a throng of onlookers taking photos with their phones.
There, in front of the men, is her husband’s grave.
“You can’t stand on the graves of better men who fought and died for this country while you rip apart that country with your incompetence,” she said on CNN.
Those better men and women are ordinary Americans who did an extraordinary thing: they answered the call. The ones who survive are often fighting for normal lives. They are battling scars seen and unseen simply because, with everything to risk, they are the rare few who said, “send me.”
“What would you risk dying for – and for whom – is perhaps the most profound question a person can ask themselves,” writes war correspondent Sebastian Yunger in “Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging,” an exploration of the challenges military personnel face when they return from war.
“The vast majority of people in modern society are able to pass their whole lives without ever having to answer that question, which is both an enormous blessing and a significant loss.”
For the commander in chief to never truly seek an answer to that question is a shame.
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CNN’s Catherine Valentine contributed to this report.