My partner, Gunnery Sgt. Diego Pongo, was killed in action in Iraq on March 8 — one of the first two combat deaths of 2020, the first combat death in Iraq since August 2019 and, thankfully, of only eight service members killed in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan so far this year. His remains were returned to Dover Air Force Base on March 11. The secretary of the Navy showed up to pay his respects at Diego's dignified transfer, as did the commandant of the Marine Corps, Diego’s commanding general, his regimental commander and senior enlisted leaders.
President Donald Trump did not — even though Diego deserved his attention and recognition.
I never really understood why the president wasn’t there that day. It wasn't the pandemic: On the night of March 11, he gave his first address to the nation about the coronavirus, telling most people that their risk was "very, very low." The men who carried Diego's transfer case from the plane didn't wear masks; the people who sacrificed but a little of their time to show their respect for Diego's sacrifice — and that of his family — didn't either.
But now, I guess I know: The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg reported this week, with corroboration from The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Associated Press, that the president said — many times, in various ways — that people like Diego were “losers” and “suckers” for giving their lives in service to their country.
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And, perhaps, it explains more than that: The Huffington Post reported earlier this week that he attended only four of the 96 transfers at Dover Air Force Base, paying his personal respects to a total of nine service members who were killed during his presidency when they came home — though he claimed otherwise at the Republican National Convention.
Both his statements and his lack of interest in our fallen soldiers have confirmed to me how little service members mattered to this commander in chief and leader of our military — and how little my life mattered to him when I was a Marine.
I had thought Trump's absence signaled indifference on his part, which is bad in itself; my best senior officers and enlisted Marines always stressed the importance of showing people you care about them. (The military life isn’t all commands and “Yes, sir’s”; sometimes it’s a lot of “I’m here’s.” People who haven’t served wouldn’t know that.) For our president — notably one who reportedly dodged military service — or any politicians of any party to remain indifferent to dignified transfers would be an insulting rejection.
But now I see the outright contempt for me, my partner and my brothers and sisters in arms that underlies the president's lack of interest. There’s no other way to understand the president's reported statements.
As a former Marine, I’ve recognized multiple presidents as my commanders in chief — and now that I’ve left the service, I’m more free both to voice my disagreements with the president and to feel them. He doesn’t command me anymore.
But he could have: If Trump had shown up to Diego’s dignified transfer, I might have been more open to him. I was a member of my college’s student Republicans group and volunteered for Mitt Romney in 2012, though I was never a Trump fan. I might nonetheless have considered what he says now if I had seen any concern for my partner. If Trump had come, I would have footnoted every criticism I ever heard about him with “Yeah, but he was there when Diego came home to Dover, so at least he’s got a little humanity.”
Instead, he'll get none from me. Instead, I’ll remember that Trump said during a October 2019 Cabinet meeting, "I go out to Dover and I have to — I meet parents… It's not a pleasant thing; it's the most unpleasant thing I do. Most unpleasant thing I do."
It’s unpleasant to give your life for your country. It’s also unpleasant for families to plan a funeral reception 3,000 miles away from home. It’s unpleasant to take responsibility sometimes.
No good leader can lead exclusively when it is comfortable to do so. But leading despite his discomfort was one of Diego’s best qualities: When faced with adversity, he tackled it head on. He never shied away from responsibility. It’s part of what made him an outstanding Marine and a good man — not, in the president's words, "a sucker."
He managed the military tightrope of being both a good follower and a challenger; he came home from work more than once fired up about the reactions of various senior officers to his objections. He made remarkable efforts to balance the demands of being active duty Marine with being an attentive and hands-on dad, eager to give his daughter every material advantage he could afford. He was always the first to offer to help a buddy repair a roof and had planned to volunteer with Team Rubicon, which helps communities hit by natural disasters make repairs.
He wanted to leave the Marines one day and become a small-business owner, or start a camp for boys in need of positive male mentorship.
Instead, Diego was buried Aug. 20 at the Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors. His example and lessons will have to live on in the people who love him.
Stories like Diego's — American stories — come home and mark their ends at Dover AFB. It’s no wonder that our commander in chief doesn’t show up to hear them. He, like so many politicians, seemingly believes that the legacies of those who died in service mar his own legacy.
Generals can recommend whether or not to go to war, but the decision is ultimately made by politicians — on both sides — who are so distanced from the realities of combat that they can’t even bother to pay respect to those who give their lives in service to those decisions. The people who shoulder the most risk have the least control. The people who die don’t make the decisions that lead to their deaths.
The absolute least that the politicians who make those decisions can do is to respect the men and women who risk their lives to carry them out.