ARLINGTON, Texas—Allen Stigler’s doorbell keeps ringing. Women are walking in with bags full of food and party supplies and passing him as he sits at a glass-top table in the living room of his spotless, suburban home. He hugs them before they disappear into the kitchen, joining the others. But when Stigler’s doorbell rang on Sunday, he was terrified when he opened the door.
“Just tell me, where is my son?” Stigler remembers. “Is he hurt?”
Two men from United States Army were on his bright, white concrete front step with dark news: Allen Jr., A.J. among his friends and family, was dead. He had been killed that very same day in what the military described as an “artillery mishap” on an undisclosed base in Iraq.
Stigler can’t remember the name of the base, somewhere near Mosul, maybe. Recently, though, they had set up “showers and shitters,” the father of three daughters and one dead son remembers. A.J. texted him this update, adding, “lol.” The father and son who never had a disagreement, never had a fight, spoke as often as possible. Now they can never talk again.
A.J. was 22 years old and 22nd American to die in Iraq and Afghanistan so far this year. He died alongside his friend, Roshain Brooks, 30, of Brooklyn, New York. All but one of those dead soldiers have not been mentioned publicly by President Trump; he addressed the widow of Navy SEAL Ryan Owens at the State of the Union address. (Owens’s father was so upset about the apparently ill-conceived raid that took his son's life that he refused to meet the president when the soldier's body arrived at Dover Air Force Base.)
As for A.J., Brooks and the other soldiers who have died this year, Trump has said nothing on Twitter, the platform that he claims allows him to get “the truth” to the American people without the filter of the “Fake News.” If anyone can get around the media’s obsession with everything Trump tweets, it’s the president himself. A few messages on the platform reminding people that men like A.J. continue to die in a war that most of us don’t pay much attention to could go a long way. It would also show that the president is thinking about something other than the media’s coverage of him, and whatever fire he set that day in Washington.
“He talked about how aggressive he was going to be on ISIS, but I don’t think we have [enough] troops over there to get this job done,” Stigler says of Trump. “It just doesn’t seem like that’s an issue of his or a concern of his to get this done and to get it done quickly.”
Stigler watches the news, he says, and pays attention to what the president is talking about. While much of the country has been consumed by the troubling events in Charlottesville—and the president’s equally troubling response—Stigler said he’s only had time to scrape the surface, reading that it had something to do with a Confederate statue, and that an innocent woman had died. On Sunday, when much of the media was hyperventilating about Trump’s failure to call out white supremacists in Charlottesville by name, Stigler was mourning his son.
“I’m trying to hold it together as best I can for him, to get him the exposure he deserves for his service,” Stigler said.
A.J. was firing on ISIS, the latest sworn enemy of this country since we invaded Iraq 14 years ago. A.J. was 6 years old then.
“He told me, ‘Pops, we’re gonna drive these guys out of here,’” Stigler recalls. “He never complained. He was optimistic.”
Now, the father offers prayers to the remaining soldiers in his son’s unit. He wonders what their future holds in a war that sometimes seems nearly forgotten—even by the president.
Trump hasn’t said much about Iraq or Afghanistan lately. For the latter country, the president resorted to his preferred practice as a leader when he allegedly said the U.S. commander in Afghanistan should be fired during a tense July meeting with top national security officials. (Trump compared the situation there—a 16-year war that has cost 3,539 American lives—to the renovations of a New York City restaurant in the 1980s.)
When it comes to Iraq, Trump has been tweeting his opinion about the American presence there since 2011. During the presidential campaign, Trump lied that he had been against the 2003 invasion and regularly decried what a “disaster” the American war effort there was. But he never said what he would do as president—other than claiming he would “bomb the shit” out of ISIS. The last time Trump mentioned Iraq on Twitter was July 31, 2016, when he thumbed out a complaint against Khizr Khan, the father of a Muslim American soldier slain during a suicide attack in Baghdad in 2004. Trump had been “viciously attacked” by the Gold Star father, he said.
A.J. was under attack on Sunday, somewhere in a country that Trump has never visited, fighting an enemy the president has promised to destroy. Mind you, Trump wouldn’t come up with such a plan himself—despite saying on the campaign trail that he knows “more on ISIS than the generals do.” Instead he has left the future of soldiers like A.J. to those same generals he said weren’t as smart as him. And it turns out that Trump’s plan looks much like Obama’s before him—perhaps not a comforting thought for fathers wanting to prevent other families from the pain Stigler is experiencing.
Some in his family have been asking what A.J. was doing in Iraq in the first place—why are we there at all? There is a rush to blame Trump for this, Stigler said, but he refuses to do so. “This war has been going on way before Trump,” he tells his family. The question now is, what will the president do about it?
“We’re the United States Armed Forces,” Stigler says. “We have all the tools necessary—muscle and might—why not go in there and do the job?”
A.J. never complained about his job as an artilleryman in a hostile environment. He was close with Brooks, who he met at Fort Bragg before the two were deployed to Iraq. He was a born leader, a perfect kid, his dad says. But now there won’t be any more Sundays watching the Dallas Cowboys in Stigler’s garage, A.J.’s bedroom just on the other side of the wall. Or Mavericks games, or trips to Whataburger and Zaxby’s, A.J.s two favorite hometown fast food joints. No more pick-up games with friends, or long talks on the phone with an ex-girlfriend’s mom who says she loved A.J. as if he were her son-in-law.
For now, Allen Stigler’s doorbell just keeps ringing.