“Gross.” “Disgusting.” “Without honor.”
These are the descriptions families of fallen soldiers are employing to describe how former President Donald Trump is using the recent deaths at Kabul’s airport as a prop in his political and fundraising machine.
On two separate occasions last week, Trump and his office blasted out written statements highlighting the anger and grief of two mothers who lost their sons in the Aug. 26 suicide bombing at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Afghanistan, promoting their deaths as an opportunity to take a swing at President Joe Biden.
In the first statement, he issued a curt message thanking Shana Chappell—who lost her 20-year-old son, Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Kareem M. Nikoui—and included her Facebook post in which she refers to Trump as “my president… the real president of the United States of America.”
In the second statement, Trump thanked Kathy McCollum—whose 20-year-old son, Lance Cpl. Rylee McCollum, left behind a pregnant wife. Below that, he included a statement from her in which she called Biden a “corrupt pseudo president” and promised to “always fight for the Trump administration just as my son did.” In several recent media interviews, some family of the fallen have heaped praise on Trump for his outreach, or have bashed Biden as incompetent—if not worse.
Both statements came from his “Save America” political action committee, which continues to function as his fundraising juggernaut during Trump’s post-presidency. The statements also heavily focus on how allegedly competent Trump was as president and why he should be back in the White House. In recent weeks, Trump and Republicans have aggressively fundraised off the Afghanistan withdrawal, and Trump has raised money from supporters by tying his anti-democratic lies about the 2020 election to his calls for Biden to “RESIGN” over the pullout.
The Daily Beast spoke to nine people who have lost loved ones during the Global War on Terror over the last two decades. Nearly all expressed extreme distaste for what they considered Trump’s opportunism—and shared concern about the vulnerability of these newly grieving parents and siblings who have just joined the tight-knit community of “Gold Star families” who have lost an immediate family member in military service.
“It’s reprehensible. It follows along with what he did as president, his pattern of using anything, anybody, to his own personal benefit,” said Derek Davey, whose son Seamus joined the U.S. Marine Corps and died in Iraq in 2005.
“He was always the flag-waver, but the things he said, he did… he’s had very little regard for Gold Star families and those who’ve lost their lives in the line of duty. I think it’s notable he’s only mentioning the ones who support him,” Davey, who was also a Marine, said.
Davey and others noted that the two grieving mothers Trump was parading out have justified anger.
“They’re as mad at Biden as I was at George Bush. I had my reasons, and they have their reasons,” he said.
But Davey and others expressed concern that these families are being preyed upon for a politician’s personal benefit.
“She had every right to feel however she feels. I do agree with that. But to use it as a campaign tactic, to me it feels dirty,” said Seana Arrechaga. “I am disgusted by it. Absolutely disgusted by it.”
For nearly a decade, Arrechaga has battled the attempt to politicize her own husband’s death. On social media, people often add political commentary when they share an image that’s dear to her, in which she is holding the gloved hand of her dead husband as he lies in an open, flag-draped casket. Army Sgt. First Class Ofren Arrechaga was killed during the surge in 2011 in Afghanistan.
“You’ve seen the blonde lady standing over the casket, saying, ‘This is why we stand for the flag.’ They use my dead husband to further their politics. And I hate it. He didn’t fight and die so people could cherry-pick the rights he died for. He died for all our rights. Kneeling in protest? He died for that right as well,” she said.
Another widow, who also lost her husband in Afghanistan in 2011 and preferred to remain anonymous, said: “Of course it makes me feel uncomfortable. It’s all gross. All of it.”
Liz Harrington, a spokesperson for Trump, issued this statement in response to The Daily Beast: "President Trump respects and honors our fallen troops, and has spoken to several family members of the warriors who died in the recent preventable attack in Afghanistan. He loves them, loves their families, and will always be there for them."
Harrington also brought up how Biden, during the arrival of the 13 service members’ flag-draped caskets at Dover Air Force Base on Aug. 29, was seen repeatedly glancing at his wrist throughout the ceremony.
“Nothing could be more offensive than Joe Biden checking his watch multiple times during the dignified transfer,” she stated. However, some observers have noted that Biden may have been making quick looks at the rosary he wears on his left wrist, the same one his son Beau wore when he died of brain cancer in 2015.
Obviously, not every family member of a military casualty feels that Trump is overstepping his bounds when it comes to politicizing death. Joe Kent is a widower who feels that Trump was merely reciprocating the outpouring of love that was coming from two hurt mothers who needed his support.
“What’s he supposed to do? If he’s silent, that’s a snub… he was in the position where he had to respond, and wanted to respond,” he said. “Him reciprocating and saying, ‘I’m here for you’ is the right thing to do.”
Kent acknowledged that Trump’s utilization of both grieving mothers ventures into dangerous territory. “At any other time, it would have been terribly inappropriate,” he said. But he also added that the utter incompetence of the American departure from Afghanistan justified Trump’s actions.
Kent has risen to Trump’s defense in the past. He wrote an essay for NBC about the supportive and intimate interaction he had with the president in 2019 at Dover Air Force Base when Trump was there for the transfer of Kent’s wife’s remains. His wife, Senior Chief Petty Officer Shannon Kent, a Navy cryptologist, died in a suicide bomber’s blast in Syria while she was doing field work in support of special operations there against ISIS.
Kent is now running for office in Washington state as an “America First” Republican seeking to replace U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, who was among only 10 GOP members who voted to impeach Trump in January after the Capitol insurrection.
“You can’t make everybody happy; no matter what you do, there’s always going to be someone who disagrees with you. I’m not holding it against [any Gold Star family members] who would say anything good or bad about Donald Trump or Joe Biden,” said longtime state Rep. Al Baldasaro, a New Hampshire co-chair of Trump’s re-election campaign who has advised Trump on military veterans’ issues. “I don’t hold it against them, they all grieve differently.”
Baldasaro, who says he recently met with Trump briefly at the ex-president’s Florida club Mar-a-Lago, added that he thought Trump was doing a great job on reaching out. “All we can do is listen to the Gold Star families, and respect their wishes, and God bless them… Americans should come together and support our veterans, especially those who made the ultimate sacrifice, and keep politics out of it,” said Baldasaro, who repeatedly called for Hillary Clinton to be executed by firing squad for “treason.”
But Trump’s overture to these families—as much as they mean to several of the members—is marked by his standard operating procedure: he rewards those who praise him, and shuns and smears those who criticize him.
During the 2016 presidential race, when Khizir Khan spoke out against Trump’s bigoted rhetoric and policy proposals, the then-future president went after the family with innuendo and his typical cattiness. In 2017, after Trump’s disastrous phone call with the widow of a soldier who died in combat in Niger, Trump and his White House staff decided to turn the fallout into a protracted, petty messaging war about how victimized Donald Trump felt.
Most of the Gold Star families who spoke to The Daily Beast in recent days warned that the families of the Army soldier, Navy corpsman, and 11 Marines who died last month are only beginning a long journey of grief and reflection, and that using their grief now would be predatory.
“I just wish he would go away,” Karen Meredith said of Trump. Her son, 1st Lt. Ken Ballard, was killed in Iraq in 2004 while serving in the U.S. Army.
Some warned that now is the best time for these 13 families to receive private support—without being paraded in public, or featured in speeches, or posted on social media memes.
“I'm 17 years out now, [so I’m in] a different place. But for these people, this week they'll be burying. Then tributes. Then a return to normal. People will expect them to return to normal. But they never will,” said Celeste Zappala, who lost her son, Sgt. Sherwood Baker, in 2004 in Iraq.
The emotional toll that comes with being used as a political tool has lasting effects that might not appear for years, Gold Star families said, and the temporary support it appears to provide will feel hollow when you need it most.
These families added that political support fades away when they call for real action. Several told The Daily Beast they are getting political pushback from members of Congress in their request to establish a Global War on Terror memorial at the National Mall, alongside similar memorials to soldiers who died fighting in both World Wars, Korea, and Vietnam. And 110 Gold Star family members recently signed a joint letter demanding “casualty assistance, real support, and a genuine relationship with the military” for families who have lost loved ones.
“Republicans and Democrats alike politicize our loss, parade us out, and usurp our stories,” said the letter, which was released last Tuesday just as Trump was preparing his second statement.
Ami Neiberger-Miller told The Daily Beast that she refuses to have the death of her brother, Army Spc. Christopher Neiberger, who was killed in 2007 in Iraq, tainted with politics. While she would not discuss the two statements issued last week by the former president, she stressed the importance for elected officials to maintain a sense of dignity with a sacrifice this sacred.
“There’s a role elected officials have in honoring the fallen... and remember them, and pay attention to that loss and sacrifice. And that can be done in a way that's nonpartisan,” she said.
That thought was echoed by Jane Horton, who last week observed the 10th anniversary of the death of her husband, Army Spc. Christopher Horton, in Afghanistan.
“Let’s just come together as a country and see that they died for the red, white and blue—not just the red or the blue,” she said.