“Hey, Joe,” a quiet but familiar voice said to me from the doorway of a small room with plush furniture. The room was meant to provide as much comfort as possible for the families of military members on the worst day of their life: the day the remains of their loved ones are returned to them at Dover Air Force Base.
I had been alone in the room for only a few minutes and was exhausted but restless; the previous three days felt like three years and three minutes all at once, because so much had been taken from my family so quickly and irrevocably that I felt like I was back at war and had just gotten attacked, but unlike in war, I couldn’t fight back.
That voice from the doorway, though, was familiar because it belonged to a man I had seen on television countless times: President Donald Trump. As he approached me, he extended his right hand to shake mine, placed his left hand on my shoulder, looked me in my eyes and said, “I’m so sorry for your loss. Shannon was an amazing woman and warrior.”
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I still have no idea what exactly I said in response. The days after my wife, Shannon Kent, was killed by a suicide bomber during a mission to fight ISIS in Syria in January 2019 had been such a blur and, anyway, I’d never met a president before.
But (I am told) I thanked President Trump, and I remember he held eye contact with me. And in his eyes, I could see — unmistakably — the same pain I’d seen in the eyes of other senior leaders who ultimately bear the responsibility for sending men and women to their deaths in combat.
As we unclasped our hands, the president said to me, “Shannon was the real deal, we are lucky to have people like her willing to go out there and face evil for us.” He kept his arm on my shoulder.
Together, as we waited for the plane that would bring Shannon home, we spent another 20 minutes talking about my wife, our children and what an amazing mother, wife and soldier she was. It was clear to me that President Trump truly cared — not just that Shannon and three others had been killed in Syria, but about who Shannon and the three others were as people.
Then the president did something that I did not expect: He asked me what I thought about Syria and what we were doing there. He talked to me — a Green Beret and a combat veteran, not some expert at the Pentagon or a think tank — about the wisdom leaving troops in harm's way once ISIS’ territorial caliphate had been destroyed. It was clear to me that he was deeply conflicted about whether staying in Syria was worth the lives lost — Shannon and her three colleagues — on that day in January.
Following that hard day in Dover when President Trump was with my family as Shannon came home, I attended another event with him and was able to (perhaps more clearly) talk with members of his staff and family about foreign policy and Gold Star family issues, such as the casualty assistance officer program and changing Defense Department regulations in Shannon’s honor.
So, when I read the anonymous allegations this week that President Trump spoke disparagingly of our troops, I knew they simply weren’t true — or were taken completely out of context in order to hurt him before the election.
President Trump’s actions have shown our troops more respect than any president in my lifetime. His use of decisive military force only when absolutely necessary, combined with his reluctance to use the military as the sole tool of foreign policy, is not only good and smart, but the sign of utmost respect for the lives of our troops.
Since 9/11, America’s all-volunteer force has served under two presidents who were quick to ceremoniously praise our sacrifices without taking any real action to change the grinding status quo that has become the hallmark of the Global War on Terror. Instead of asking hard questions about what we were gaining or could ever gain and taking action based on those answers, Global War on Terror Trump's predecessors fought wars with our troops in an effort to build new governments in Afghanistan and Iraq after 9/11, while letting the perpetrator of that terrorist attack escape to Pakistan (whose government we continue to support).
Former President Barack Obama may have offered eloquent rhetoric, but very little changed during his tenure from his predecessor, except that he also got us involved in the conflict in Syria.
Previous presidents’ support of endless wars has resulted in the loss of thousands of American lives and cost American taxpayers trillions of dollars, whereas President Trump’s limited use of military force and swift action when needed marks a decisive change from that policy. (Look no further than what happened to Qassem Soleimani: When Soleimani ordered an attack that killed an American in late 2019, President Trump immediately ordered a strike that killed him.) And this president has avoided getting us into any new wars — something his recent predecessors seemingly could either not avoid or not resist.
As both a veteran of our nation’s wars and a Gold Star spouse, I find that platitudes about respect for our nation’s troops from leaders without a strategy to keep us from getting into pointless or unwinnable wars are the highest form of disrespect. Our troops and our nation deserve a president who has our best interests in mind, not just meaningless platitudes about our service meant to paint a rosy picture of war and destruction.
America — and the men and women in uniform — need a president who will ask the hard questions about why we are fighting and dying and, yes, whether it was or will be worth it, and then will do his utmost to protect America, our troops, its military and its standing as the greatest fighting force the world has ever seen.