Take It From Me: How Not to Handle Military Condolence Calls


By Barb Lutz

I was a Casualty Assistance Officer for the U.S. Army back in the early 1980s as a lieutenant assigned to Fort Benjamin Harrison, Ind. I received no training. When notified I was on the duty roster, I was told, “Don’t worry about it. We never get any casualties from Indiana. If we do, you’ll get training when you’re assigned a case.”

I was assigned three cases as a CAO while I was at Fort Harrison. All of the deaths occurred under suspicious circumstances. My training consisted of reading a pamphlet before I was sent to the first home to assist the parents of a young woman who allegedly had committed suicide while in the psych ward at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C.

The family was extremely hostile and wanted answers, which I did not have. Luckily, I was mature enough to show compassion and understanding, and not make any promises I couldn’t keep. I spent the next six months assisting the family while the investigation at Walter Reed went on and on. I was relieved when it was over, but I knew I had provided a vital service to both the Army and the family.

This brings me to the unfortunate fiasco that has erupted over President Donald Trump’s call to the family of Sgt. La David Johnson. As little as I think of Trump, there is no doubt in my mind that he was trying to do the right thing. The problem is, he failed.

He didn’t rehearse or write down what he was going to say to a widow with two young children and a third on the way. He just “winged it,” as he often does, with disastrous results. A few minutes of preparation were all that was needed.

And now that the deed is done, he is incapable of admitting he was clumsy and inappropriate, and apologizing. It’s all about him.

But in my mind, the one who was most at fault and acted most inappropriately was retired Gen. John Kelly. First of all, as the president’s chief of staff, he gave Trump horrible advice about what to say. When a CAO had talked to Kelly about his own son “knowing what he was getting into,” it was a message from one Marine to another. Kelly would have understood. One would never say something like that to a young widow who has had no experience in the military.

Kelly should have advised Trump that he should say repeatedly how sorry he was, and how Johnson was a hero. And when you’re talking to someone bereaved, you need to know the name of their loved one and use it. This is common sense. Anyone, including the president, who officially interacts with a bereaved military family member should first get training from a professional bereavement specialist.

The second mistake Kelly made was going after U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., for “listening in” on the conversation. If he had done any checking, he would have found out that Wilson had known Johnson since he was a child and that she had known the extended family for years. When Johnson’s widow, Myeshia Johnson, took the president’s call over the speakerphone, I’m sure it was so everyone in the vehicle could hear the president offering his condolences. They didn’t know in advance that he would bungle it. What was Wilson supposed to do, put her fingers in her ears?

Then, Kelly’s third mistake was personally attacking Wilson with false accusations regarding the dedication of the FBI building in Miami. Even if what he said had been true, which it wasn’t, why attack her for something that happened years ago that had absolutely nothing to do with the situation at hand? Kelly used the word “stunned” five times when speaking about Wilson’s behavior. You’d think it would take more than that to stun a four-star general.

Any expectation that Kelly was going to be one of the “adults in the room” and try to restrain Trump from making false and outrageous statements and tweets has disappeared. Kelly has now stooped down to Trump’s level of lying and making personal attacks to deflect his own mistakes and shortcomings. Don’t expect an apology.

Barb Lutz, of Minneapolis, is a Humanists of Minnesota member and retired U.S. Army captain. This commentary was first published in the StarTribune on Oct. 25.


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