Gold Star families came away surprised at attention Trump showed them

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Tuesday night, Craig Gross received an offer he could not refuse from one of the few men in America who understands the pain he feels.

"Do you want to meet Donald Trump?" Kris Hager asked Gross, a fellow Gold Star father.

So Gross had to decide: Go to work as scheduled, at Frankie's Patriot BBQ, the Tarpon Springs restaurant he owns and has dedicated to the son he lost during the war in Afghanistan, or make the long drive from his home in Oldsmar to Jacksonville with Hager and his wife Wendy, who lost his son to combat in Iraq.

"It was an easy choice," said Gross. "I suffer from FOMO — Fear of Missing Out."

DRAWN INTO DEBATE: Gold Star families find themselves in presidential campaign flap

At a time when Trump was embroiled in a feud with another Gold Star father, who took the stage at the Democratic National Convention to criticize his plan for cracking down on Muslim immigration, Gross and Hager made the 200 mile trip to see the Republican presidential nominee at Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville.

The two men were wary at first, wondering whether they had been summoned merely to help calm the political waters for Trump. They left surprised that their meeting was held in private and impressed at the nominee's sincerity.

"We all go into these things with preconceived ideas," said Gross, whose son, Army Cpl. Frank Gross, was 25 when he died in Afghanistan in July 2011. "I didn't want to be used as a pawn to deflate the Khan controversy."

With his DNC speech, Khzir Khan, a Pakistani immigrant and devout Muslim whose Army captain son Humayun Khan was killed by a suicide bomber in Iraq in 2004, touched off a feud with Trump that played out on Twitter and television.

Politicians including U.S. Sen. John McCain and a diverse group of veterans organizations jumped to Khan's defense. Others backed Trump in the debate over the candidate's temperament and the use by politicians of families who lost loved ones to war.

Gross and Hager arrived not to the bank of TV crews they had expected but to a table in room where Trump's campaign photographer wielded the only camera.

"Mr. Trump was very gracious," said Hager, of Parrish, whose son Army Staff Sgt. Joshua Hager was 30 when he was killed in Iraq in 2007. "There was no script. No agenda. He wanted to know our stories and what we have gone through. He was absolutely empathetic."

Gross said he was "totally shocked" that Trump spent as much time with them as he did, more than half an hour.

"All I expected was a handshake and, 'Thank you for your service," Gross said.

Khan's name never came up.

"It was a non-event for the Gold Star families attending," he said.

Hager said he told Trump that, if elected, he needs to have a Gold Star family in the West Wing every day "so that you can look at someone in the eyes whose son or daughter have given their life and know what that is all about."

Trump, said Hager, looked at Michael Flynn, a retired Army three-star general who has been supporting the candidate, and said, "'You are right.'"

Gross said he offered a subtle bit of advice to Trump.

"I said, 'Mr. Trump, please stay focused.' I did not elaborate. He knew what I was talking about."

There were 10 Gold Star family members who attended the meetings, said Hager, including Billy and Karen Vaughn. Their son, Navy Chief Special Warfare Operator Aaron Vaughn, 30, was a member of SEAL Team 6 and one of 30 U.S. troops killed in the worst single day in the history of both the U.S. Special Operations Forces and the Afghanistan war.

On Aug. 6, 2011, the Taliban shot down a twin-engine CH-47 Chinook helicopter with the call sign Extortion 17, killing members of the SEAL team as well as naval special warfare operators, Army flight crewmen, Air Force personnel, Afghan soldiers and an Afghan interpreter.

Karen Vaughn had spoken on behalf of Trump in July at the Republican National Convention. She did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

Gross supported Trump to begin with. The meeting strengthened his resolve. Hager, who was leaning toward Trump, fully supports him now and will vote for him in November.

The Trump rally in Jacksonville, a city with a big military and veterans' population, drew an estimated 15,000 people. But Gross and Hager didn't stay for it.

"We had driven too long that day," Hager said.

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

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