For some in military, a heartbreak Trump can't comprehend

Donald Trump's criticism of a Muslim-American family that lost its son in Iraq has stirred dismay among veterans and soldiers. 

Evan Vucci/AP
VFW members listen as Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a Veterans of Foreign Wars convention last week in Charlotte, N.C. The head of the VFW criticized Mr. Trump Monday for comments the candidate made about the family of a Muslim-American veteran who died in Iraq.

Ryan McGill still grieves the loss of one of his best friends, a fellow pilot who was shot down during the Iraq war.

“I’m still heartbroken,” says the chief warrant officer in the United States Army Reserve, who flew Black Hawk helicopters in Iraq. “I talk to his family all the time just to check in, because it never goes away.”

It is with this friend in mind that Officer McGill says he will not consider voting for Donald Trump. For McGill, Mr. Trump’s response to a Muslim-American family who lost a son serving in Iraq was unprofessional enough to disqualify him.

“He wants to be the commander in chief, but to say that the sacrifices he’s made are on par with these families, or even greater than theirs – it’s horrible,” he says.

While troops potentially sacrifice their lives, families sacrifice even more, he adds. “They’re the ones who are left worrying and wondering every day whether we’re going to return,” he says. “When someone doesn’t, like Captain Khan, it’s heartbreaking.”

Prominent veterans from Sen. John McCain to the head of the Veterans of Foreign Wars have condemned Trump’s behavior toward Khan’s mother and father, who have spoken against Trump during and after the Democratic National Convention (DNC). Trump has since equated his sacrifices as a businessman with the Khans’ in losing their son, and he has also lashed out at the Khans for criticizing him.

But McGill’s comments suggest that the anger extends into at least some of the military’s rank and file, too.  

'Outright unprofessional'

“You should never, ever argue with a Gold Star family,” the name the military has given to those who have lost loved ones at war, says Army Reserve Capt. Asha Castleberry, who has served a total of 30 months on deployments to Iraq and Kuwait.

“Out of all of the speakers, he reacts to that family,” she says. “It makes you question his judgment and his sensitivity toward the families of fallen soldiers. To me, it’s just outright unprofessional.”

In his speech at the Democratic convention, Mr. Khan had said that Trump was asking Americans to trust him with their future. “Let me ask you, have you ever read the US Constitution?” he said. “Have you been to Arlington cemetery?” Khan concluded, “You have sacrificed nothing and no one.”

Trump hit back, saying he has “made a lot of sacrifices.” He also wondered aloud why Khan’s wife stood by silently during her husband’s speech. Her answer, which she explained on MSNBC: Her son’s photo appearing as they spoke made her want to cry, and she was trying to keep her emotions in check. At home, she said, “I cannot even come into the room where his pictures are.”

Mr. Khan, for his part, said he couldn’t have gotten through his DNC speech without his wife by his side.

In a statement, Republican vice presidential nominee Mike Pence praised the Khans. "Donald Trump and I believe that Captain Humayun Khan is an American hero and his family, like all Gold Star families, should be cherished by every American," the statement says.

The VFW's reaction

But many prominent Republicans have continued to speak about Trump's comments.

“In recent days, Donald Trump disparaged a fallen soldier’s parents,” wrote Senator McCain, a decorated veteran and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, in a statement released Monday. “He has suggested that the likes of their son should not be allowed in the United States – to say nothing of entering its service. I cannot emphasize enough how deeply I disagree with Mr. Trump’s statement.”

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry said he was “dismayed” by the attacks the Khans “have endured after they spoke about their son’s service and sacrifice. There is never enough honor we can show the families of those whose loved ones have made the ultimate sacrifice for our country.”

Meanwhile, Brian Duffy, head of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said Trump’s statements about a Gold Star family were “unacceptable” and perhaps irreparable.

“Election year or not, the VFW will not tolerate anyone berating a Gold Star family member for exercising his or her right of speech or expression,” he said in a statement. “There are certain sacrosanct subjects that no amount of word-smithing can repair once crossed.”

'A lot like my own parents'

For Army Maj. Kamal Kalsi, who met the Khan family at the Democratic National Convention, Trump’s comments to the Khans strike deeper.

“They in many ways are a lot like my own parents,” says Major Kalsi, an Army doctor “They immigrated to this country, and their son also served in the military, like I do.”

Kalsi was just off-stage when Khizr Khan, the father, delivered his speech.

Photo courtesy Kamal Kalsi
Army Maj. Kamal Kalsi (r.) meets Khizr Khan (c.) and his wife Ghazala Khan backstage at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia Thursday.

“It brought tears to my eyes,” he says.

It reminded him of his deployment to Afghanistan, serving at a field hospital in violent Helmand Province. “We were seeing lots and lots of casualties.” In a rare free moment, he was able to sit down and phone his family. At one point, he recalls his then two-year-old son said, “ ‘Da Da, I miss you. Do you still remember me?’ It breaks your heart,” Kalsi says.

“Donald Trump has time and again shown not just that he’s never sacrificed anything – that he’s a person who’s only taken – but that he doesn’t even understand sacrifice,” he adds. “Anybody who can’t appreciate the depth of grief of a military family, or that finds a way to twist a mother’s grief into some sort of cultural incompetency – really has a callous disregard not just for a soldier’s life, but for humanity.”

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