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Trump Call Controversy Renews Spotlight On Gold Star Families

Myeshia Johnson, widow of U.S. Army Sergeant La David Johnson, who was among four special forces soldiers killed in Niger, sits with her daughter, Ah'Leeysa Johnson at a graveside service in Hollywood, Fla., on Oct. 21.
Joe Skipper
Myeshia Johnson, widow of U.S. Army Sergeant La David Johnson, who was among four special forces soldiers killed in Niger, sits with her daughter, Ah'Leeysa Johnson at a graveside service in Hollywood, Fla., on Oct. 21.

The widow of Army Sgt. La David Johnson, one of the four U.S. soldiers killed in a military operation in Niger earlier this month, says President Trump's condolence call only made her feel worse.

Families of fallen service members have been thrust into the spotlight in ways they never have before, says Bonnie Carroll, president and founder of TAPS, which stands for Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, a charity that offers services to Gold Star families.

"Grief is a very private matter, and for our families when they suffer the loss of a military loved one, there is a public mourning that occurs," Carroll tells Here & Now's Alex Ashlock. "The conversation has shed a light on the service of our men and women in uniform, and then especially, on the sacrifices that are made by those who serve and by the families left behind."

Myeshia Johnson, Sgt. Johnson's widow, told ABC's Good Morning America on Monday that the president "made me cry even worse" when he called her last week. She said she objected to Trump's tone and his confusion over her husband's name.

Trump told her "that 'he knew what he signed up for, but it hurts anyways,' " Johnson recalled. "It made me cry, because I was very angry at the tone of his voice and couldn't remember my husband's name."

Trump denied stumbling over Johnson's husband's name, saying on Twitter that he spoke Sgt. Johnson's name "without hesitation!"

The phone call controversy has continued to build over the past week, since Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., who listened in on the call, disclosed details of the conversation. It has also renewed attention on Gold Star families, which is a term used by the military to describe the parents, siblings and children of men and women killed in combat.

Carroll, who founded TAPS after her husband was killed in an Army aircraft crash in Alaska in 1992, says that since this controversy began, "TAPS has received so many calls."

The organization consists of a national network of more than 70,000 families that offers peer-to-peer emotional support, benefits and resource assistance, grief counseling and a 24-hour help line, she says.

"Right now, we are getting on average, over the course of this year alone, 16 newly bereaved families each and every day," Carroll says. "That means by the end of this year, we will probably have over 6,000 new surviving military members as part of all that TAPS offers."

In this political climate, Carroll says Gold Star families need to support each other "to know that they are safe, to know that their loved ones' life and service is honored above all else."

"This moment in the media may be fleeting, but the journey that they are on is a lifetime," she says. "What I'm most grateful for in the media this past week is the way they've talked about the individuals. They've shown photographs of these fallen heroes. We've had a national discussion about what extraordinary men they were and women."

This is not the first time President Trump has offended the family of a fallen service member.

Following their appearance at the Democratic National Convention last year, Trump attacked Khizr Khan and his wife Ghazala, whose son, Capt. Humayun Khan, was killed by a suicide bomber in Iraq in 2004.

In the DNC speech, Khan challenged Trump's call to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. and offered to lend the Republican candidate his pocket copy of the Constitution. Trump then questioned the Khan's motives and religion in TV appearances and on Twitter.

Khan told NPR's Morning Edition this month that he was deeply troubled by Trump's remarks to the wife of an American soldier killed in Niger. Khan is out with a new book, An American Family.

"Everything, every word is wrong," Khan said. "Every word is wrong. These men and women, my sons and daughters, signed up for something more than this president can comprehend. This is beyond his comprehension, patriotism, sacrifice. When John McCain sacrificed so much to serve this country, this president ran away. This president ran away from serving."

Trump was medically disqualified for service in 1968 due to bone spurs in his heels, he told The New York Times last year. Trump received four previous deferments during Vietnam for education.

Despite his lack of military service, Trump has a history of criticizing service members. When he was running for president, Trump said Sen. McCain was only a war hero "because he was captured," referring to McCain's five and a half years in captivity after being shot down over North Vietnam.

"I like people that weren't captured," he said.

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