Tuesday, July 17, 2018
Military News

Advice for presidents from military families they’ve tried to console

One family returned the letter because it was full of errors. Another was left cold when the letter they got screamed "robo-pen." Still another was puzzled to find 17 copies of their letter in the mailbox.

The presidential act of expressing condolences to the families of the military fallen is fraught with missteps, judging from the experiences of people who have received them.

So with the flap this week over President Donald Trump, and whether he was sincere in a phone call to the mother of a soldier killed in Africa on Oct. 4, the Tampa Bay Times asked for presidential advice from members of local Gold Star families — those who have lost a service member in combat, training, or any other situation.

They gave a wide range of answers, including one from a father in Parrish who offered to serve as Trump’s official representative and reach out to Gold Star families on the president’s behalf. He says the White House is considering him for a full-time job.

•••

Kris Hager of Parrish became a Gold Star father on Feb. 22, 2007, when his son, 29-year-old Army Staff Sgt. Joshua Hager, was killed in Iraq. About 10 days later, Hager said, his family received a letter from President George Bush — and quickly sent it back.

"It had misspelled words and typos in it," said Hager, 66, national coordinator for Gold Star families for Green Zone Hero, a branding and marketing company that supports veterans. "An Army Ranger deserves better than misspelled words and typos."

Still, Hager said, feeling a personal connection with the White House would mean more than a call or letter. "To know that someone in authority cares would be spectacular."

That’s why he pitched Trump on the idea of a full-time presidential advocate to Gold Star families.

Hager had met Trump a few times before and in June, he was among 50 Gold Star family members invited to dinner with Trump and Vice President Mike Pence. Both men were receptive to the proposal, he said.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

•••

Don Carey said he wasn’t contacted at all by President George W. Bush when his son, Marine Cpl. Barton Humlhanz, 23, was killed in Iraq in 2004.

"That did not upset me," said Carey, 60 of Oldsmar, president of the non-profit Gold Star Fathers of Florida Inc.

"I don’t think he has a duty to. When Bart was killed, it was in the heat of battle when there were so many casualties. What happens if one gets missed? Then the president is subject to ridicule again. I don’t know that there is a win to that situation at all."

Carey said even he finds it difficult to find the right words for those who lose a loved one.

"I don’t want to say the wrong thing. I don’t want to offend someone. I just look them in the eye and say, ‘I have no idea what you are dealing with. I can only relate to what we have gone through. We just want you to know if you ever need us, we are here.’"

Carey said he is saddened to see that the deaths of Army Sgt. La David Johnson and three other soldiers in Niger has grown so politicized.

"What’s really a shame for these Gold Star families is that they are going through a very difficult time right now," he said. "These folks are in a great time of grief."

•••

Carlos del Castillo said he was left cold by a robo-signed certificate he received from President Barack Obama when his son, 24-year-old Army Ranger 1st Lt. Dimitri del Castillo, was killed June 25, 2011, in Afghanistan.

"The receipt of that letter was cold and matter of fact," said del Castillo, 58, a company executive in Tampa. "There was nothing significant or gracious in that form letter. I remember it actually just made us sad that was all the effort the sitting president could muster."

Del Castillo was especially upset that Obama found time to write a personal letter to the wife of rapper Heavy D, who died five months after his son.

"I guess dead soldiers and their families don’t rate the same level of significance."

•••

Toni Gross, 62, of Oldsmar, said her family received 17 copies of a robo-signed letter from Obama after her son, 25-year-old Army Cpl. Frank Gross, was killed in Afghanistan on July 16, 2011.

"When Frank died, we did not receive a call from President Obama, but we did receive a beautifully written letter from both First Lady Michelle and the president," Gross said. "I would have been honored to receive personal condolences by way of a phone call from the president, no matter who filled the office at the time."

But after the personal letter, the family received the robo-signed letter, said Gross, chapter president of American Gold Star Mothers Inc. Tampa Bay.

Then, without explanation, another letter. And another.

"There were 17 in all," she said.

She and her husband Craig Gross distributed them to members of his family.

•••

Kelly Kowall never received a call from Obama when her son, Army Spc. Corey Kowall, 20, was killed in Afghanistan in 2009.

"I got an auto-pen signed letter," said Kowall, 60 of Apollo Beach, who runs My Warriors Place, a Ruskin retreat for Gold Star families, veterans, service members and first responders. "I will say that if the president would have signed this letter himself, it might have meant more to me. I also felt that if he had signed them, then he might have been more aware of how many warriors have been killed while he had been in office."

Still, while it would have been a nice gesture, Kowall didn’t expect to receive a call.

"I know that the mother of a fallen soldier recently got a phone call from Trump and was angry at his choice of words," she said.

"Because grief is very complicated and messy, what someone says to a grieving family member of a fallen warrior may be very upsetting. But those same words to another grieving family member may not be upsetting at all."

•••

All too often, families who lose a loved one during training rather than combat are forgotten.

Kari Cowan, 55, of Clearwater, said she was pleasantly surprised when Bush sent her a letter after her husband, Army Chief Warrant Officer 3 Aaron Cowan, 37, was killed in a helicopter training accident in South Korea on Feb. 26, 2005.

"I thought it was a beautiful tribute," Cowan said. "I prefer the letter to a phone call, because last night, I pulled all the letters out and it was like reading them for the first time."

Contact Howard Altman at [email protected] or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.

 
Comments
Iraqi interpreter who risked life helping U.S. troops fights for citizenship

Iraqi interpreter who risked life helping U.S. troops fights for citizenship

Haeder Alanbki, an Iraqi living in Orlando, applied to become a U.S. citizen in 2016. Given his years as an interpreter for U.S. forces in Iraq, he thought it would be a simple formality. But in a lawsuit he filed last month against the government, ...
Published: 07/16/18
The Air Force’s $10,000 toilet cover

The Air Force’s $10,000 toilet cover

To the Air Force, it’s a "cover-center wall, troop compartment latrine ... required to protect the aircraft from corrosion damage in the latrine area."To the rest of us, it’s a toilet cover. And until recently, it had a price tag of $10,000.Officials...
Published: 07/15/18
Veterans to break ground on Sun City Center memorial

Veterans to break ground on Sun City Center memorial

SUN CITY CENTER — Residents in this retirement community will celebrate the construction of a Veterans Memorial with a groundbreaking ceremony at 10 a.m. on July 17.The memorial will mark the first such tribute to the thousands of veterans who have l...
Published: 07/10/18
Updated: 07/13/18
Were veterans’ radiology tests wrongly canceled? VA includes Haley in national audit

Were veterans’ radiology tests wrongly canceled? VA includes Haley in national audit

TAMPA — Federal investigators are looking into allegations that officials at the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital canceled hundreds of patient radiology exams without following safety guidelines and then tried to cover it up.The exams had been order...
Published: 07/09/18
Howard Altman: Hillsborough joins new national military suicide prevention effort

Howard Altman: Hillsborough joins new national military suicide prevention effort

Florida veterans have a significantly higher rate of taking their own lives compared to the national veteran suicide rate, according to the most recent data released by the Department of Veterans Affairs.But in Hillsborough County, that figure is far...
Published: 07/06/18
Trump’s counterterrorism pick is Joe Maguire of Tampa, now helping commando families

Trump’s counterterrorism pick is Joe Maguire of Tampa, now helping commando families

TAMPA — The intelligence leader who keeps tabs on terrorist threats and communicates them to the nation will be a retired vice admiral from Tampa, if President Donald Trump has his way.For the past five years, former Navy SEAL Joe Maguire has served ...
Published: 07/03/18
Updated: 07/04/18
Art2Action, The Bunker team to give veterans ‘Open Mic Night’

Art2Action, The Bunker team to give veterans ‘Open Mic Night’

YBOR CITY — With umbrellas piled in the corner as you walked into The Bunker, welcoming vibes mixed with the sweet aroma of coffee, hints of just-baked muffins and cookies, and a few kind hellos from the staff.The seats, plush and cushioned, are pull...
Published: 06/28/18
Updated: 07/04/18
New chief calls MacDill ‘crown jewel’ of Air Force’s mobility command

New chief calls MacDill ‘crown jewel’ of Air Force’s mobility command

TAMPA — Air Force Col. Stephen Snelson, the new leader of the host command at MacDill Air Force Base, called his new assignment a career pinnacle as he took over the 6th Air Mobility Wing at a ceremony Friday."MacDill Air Force Base is the crown jewe...
Updated one month ago
Howard Altman: Three Tampa firms win rights to bid on $2.4 billion Army contract

Howard Altman: Three Tampa firms win rights to bid on $2.4 billion Army contract

In a move that could mean more high-paying defense contracting jobs for the Tampa area, three local firms have been awarded the rights to bid on work through a $2.4 billion Army contract.Calhoun International and a combined effort by two other Tampa ...
Updated one month ago
Writer resigns from ‘New Yorker’ after twitter flap over Pasco Marine’s tattoo

Writer resigns from ‘New Yorker’ after twitter flap over Pasco Marine’s tattoo

Talia Lavin, whose tweet about a Pasco veteran’s tattoo implied he was a Nazi, has apologized to him and resigned from her position as a fact-checker at the New Yorker magazine.But in another tweet, Thursday evening, Lavin also lashed out at the fede...
Updated one month ago