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.