White House Chief of Staff John Kelly painted an emotional narrative of the outreach made in the aftermath of a U.S. service member’s death during Thursday’s White House press briefing, a description that came on a week in which President Donald Trump found himself in the midst of a controversy over his alleged comments to the widow of a fallen soldier and claims about former presidents’ attempts to reach out.
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Kelly, whose son, 1st Lt. Robert M. Kelly, was killed in action in 2010, described the process of alerting a fallen service member’s family about their death and transporting their body back to the United States. Kelly’s appearance and somber descriptions during the top of the White House press briefing were his idea and sought to add context as the conversation over the deaths of U.S. soldiers killed in an ambush in Niger have spiraled into political back-and-forth, senior White House officials told ABC News.
“Most Americans don’t know what happens when we lose one of our soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines or Coast Guardsmen in combat,” Kelly said.
He then detailed the painstaking process of bringing a fallen soldier home.
“Their buddies wrap them up in whatever passes as a shroud,” he said, adding that a fellow soldier “puts them on a helicopter as a routine and sends them home.”
The bodies are packed in ice, he said, placed in the plane and flown to Europe. The soldier’s remains are once again packed in ice and flown to Dover Air Force Base.
Once at Dover, the bodies are embalmed, then someone “meticulously dresses them in their uniform with the medals that they’ve earned, the emblems of their service and then puts them on another airplane linked up to the casualty officer escort that takes them home,” Kelly continued.
A casualty officer then makes the solemn call to the home of the family, “very early in the morning and waits for the first lights to come on.”
“And then he knocks on the door, typically the mom or dad will answer, wife. And if there is a wife this is happening in two different places, if the parents are divorced, three different places. And the casualty officer proceeds to break the heart of a family member and stays with that family until, well for a long, long time, even after the internment,” Kelly said.
Kelly said that he recommended that Trump not make such calls.
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“There’s no perfect way to make that phone call. When I took this job and talked to President Trump about how to do it, my first recommendation was he not do it,” Kelly said. “Because it’s not the phone call that parents, family members are looking forward to. It’s nice to do, in my opinion, in any event.”
The detailed account of how hundreds of military families over the years have received the news about the deaths of their loved ones comes in the midst of ongoing controversy over the sensitivity used when reaching out to those families.
On Monday, Trump claimed that President Barack Obama did not make phone calls to service members’ families following their deaths, though later partially walked back the comments saying, “I don’t know if he did. No, no, no… was told that he didn’t often, and a lot of presidents don’t.”
The president then faced criticism when Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla. claimed that he told the widow of Army Sgt. La David T. Johnson, one of the four soldiers killed in an ambush Niger earlier this month, “he knew what he signed up for” during a condolence call.
Kelly told reporters on Thursday that the most important calls he received came in the immediate aftermath of his son’s death.
“Hours after my son was killed his friends were calling us from Afghanistan, telling us what a great guy he was,” Kelly said.
The chief of staff, a retired four star Marine corps general, expressed understanding that presidents — including Obama, who was in office the year his son died — do not always personally make phone calls to families, and described the advice he gave to Trump when the president elected to contact the loved ones of those lost in Niger.
“If you’re not in the family, if you’ve never worn the uniform, if you’ve never been in combat, you can’t even imagine how to make that call,” Kelly said, adding, “He called four people the other day and expressed his condolences in the best way that he could.”
Obtained by ABC NewsFirst Lieutenant Robert M. Kelly, son of White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, is seen in an undated photo.
In assisting Trump, Kelly said he described what a casualty officer told him in the aftermath of his son’s death.
“He was doing exactly what he wanted to do when he was killed… He knew what the possibilities were,” Kelly said he was told.
“When he died, he was surrounded by the best men on this Earth, his friends,” Kelly said of his son. “That’s what the president tried to say to these families.”
The general criticized Wilson for her role in the controversy and said that it “absolutely stuns” him that a member of Congress would not only listen in on the call between the president and Johnson’s wife, Myeshia, but that she would politicize the situation in television interviews afterward. On Wednesday, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders noted that Kelly and “several people in the room from the administration” were also on the call.
“When I listened to this woman and what she was saying and what she was doing on TV, the only thing I could do to collect my thoughts was to go and walk among the finest men and women on this Earth. And you can always find them, because they’re in Arlington National Cemetery,” he said. “I went over there for an hour and a half, walked among the stones — some of whom I put there because they were doing what I told them to do when they were killed.”
A spokesperson for Wilson said that the congresswoman was aware of Kelly’s comments at the press briefing and has “decided this has gone too far.”
“This shouldn’t be about [Wilson],” said spokewoman Joyce Jones. “It’s about remembering and honoring this fallen hero and fighting for his family.”
But several hours later, on Thursday night, the president returned to his criticism of Rep. Wilson, tweeting that the “wacky” congresswoman told a “total lie” about his telephone conversation with Johnson’s widow.