There’s a big difference between a job and a duty, especially in the military. In the Army, serving as lieutenant as I was, you can have the job of platoon leader, the officer who supervises the lives and training of up to about 40 enlisted soldiers — privates and corporals mainly, a few sergeants. I was 22 year old when I had about 25 soldiers under my command. I was also the weapons officer and mess officer. That was my job.
My duty was to care for the men in my platoon, to treat them fairly and insure they were treated the same way by the rest of the command structure in the division, to make sure their families were okay, even to check to see that they were able to pay their car loans and insurance and rent on time. It was my duty to insure that there was no discrimination by race in assignments or promotions, and to make sure that the Army’s laws and regulations were enforced fairly and equally for each of them. It was my duty, finally, to exercise the authority I had over these men fairly and equitably, and to insure that the orders I gave were reasonable and legal. There were a lot of what we called “shit details” in the Army — jobs nobody wanted to do. It was my duty to insure that the overall shit detail of serving in the Army was shared equally by us all, including myself.
I learned about duty from my grandfather when I was about 12 or 13 years old. I remember the summers I spent with my grandmother and grandfather in Washington, D.C. back in the early 1960s. My brother Frank and I would be out in the garden with our grandfather, or maybe we’d be in the kitchen helping him wash the kohlrabi and peppers and tomatoes we had just harvested from his vegetable garden. And grandpa, who had been a general who commanded as many as a million men in combat over three years during World War II, would be standing over the sink in his long-sleeve khakis, sweat-stained from the sun and the heat outside, and without looking at us, maybe holding a big fat kohlrabi under the faucet in his massive hands, he would growl in his gravelly voice: “Boys, one of these days you’re going to be in the Army and you’ll have men under your command, and what you have to remember is this: Your first duty is, you feed ‘em, you make sure they’ve got plenty to eat. Then you put a roof over their heads, then you pay ‘em, and then and only then, can you send them out to die.”
They taught a less harsh version of the same thing at West Point. For four years there, it was pounded into our heads every day that our first duty as leaders in the Army was to “take care of your men.” The unspoken corollary to that admonition was that if you took care of them, they would take care of you. When you ordered them to do something, they would follow your order. And as my grandfather said in his inimitable fashion, if need be they would go into combat and risk their lives and die in carrying out your orders. It goes without saying that “taking care of your men” was entirely different than say, supervising workers in an office in civilian life. In the Army, when you took care of people, you couldn’t guarantee that in following your orders, they wouldn’t lose their lives. The purpose of armies is to fight wars, and that wasn’t the bargain. Wars are fought with real bullets and bombs, and people die.
But also unspoken in the contract between leaders and the soldiers who follow them was the promise that if they died, you would take care that they would be treated with dignity and respect in death and make sure that their families would be treated similarly in their grief. The Army afforded a $10,000 “death benefit” paid to the next of kin upon a soldier’s death back then. Today it’s $100,000, and it’s called a “death gratuity” and is intended to help a soldier’s family deal with funeral and other adjustment costs after the death of the soldier.
But any soldier’s family will tell you while it’s nice to have the money, it’s the way they’re treated by the military that really counts. Nobody ever wants their spouse or mom or dad or brother or sister to die on the job. But if you have to die on the job, the job you want to have is soldier, because they know what to do when soldiers die.
The most solemn duty a soldier can have is to serve on a casualty assistance team, usually comprised of an officer and a chaplain or another soldier of similar rank. One casualty assistance officer is assigned to the family of each dead soldier. It’s the job of the casualty assistance officer and chaplain to notify the next of kin — usually a widow or parents — within 12 hours of the soldier’s death. Then they are available to help with everything from acceptance of the body when it’s delivered from the combat zone, to the funeral, to assistance in filling out all of the forms necessary to receive whatever death benefits the family is entitled to. The casualty assistance officer usually stays on the job until the funeral or until all available assistance has been provided to the family.
But it doesn’t stop there. The soldier’s commanders, from platoon leader through company, battalion, brigade and division commanders (and equivalent commands in the Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard) call the family to offer aid and condolences and inform them of the circumstances of the soldier’s death, if that’s possible. They also write letters of condolence. The soldier’s spouse or next of kin will be visited by the wives or husbands or significant others of the commanders serving overseas, and they will pitch in to help with funeral arrangements and grieving. Often, squad mates and platoon mates of the soldier will call the family and write letters. The soldier’s personal effects will be shipped home. The family will continue to be afforded military housing until they can be resettled. Frequently, these days, soldiers will put up Facebook pages dedicated to their dead comrade and collect donations for the survivors. “The army is like a big small town, and we take care of our own,” my mother told me when I was growing up. Her father was an army officer, and her mother was an army wife, so she spoke from two lifetimes of experience in her family.
She knew what she was talking about. When my father was in Vietnam as a battalion commander and my mother was back home at Fort Riley, Kansas, the wives of soldiers in the battalion called her “Mrs. Colonel” because she ran the back home operation that helped soldiers’ families when their husbands were overseas. Sometimes, the help was financial, taking up a collection to help with rent or a car payment. Sometimes it was practical — setting up car pools to give people rides to work or help with daycare or a babysitter when someone needed a night out with friends. Less often, but more importantly, it was her duty to help widows and parents of dead soldiers with funerals, with getting their lives back on track after their loss.
I never served in combat, but I lost two soldiers in my platoon during the time I served at Fort Carson, Colorado in 1969 and 1970. They weren’t killed in Vietnam, but what killed them was just as deadly: the drug war back home. One guy overdosed on heroin. One of the guys in the platoon found his body in the latrine late at night and called me at home. I lived only a short distance away, and I drove to the company and oversaw the collection of his body and the investigation by the military police, which didn’t amount to much, since he died with a needle in his arm.
The other guy was shot in the stomach with a sawed-off shotgun in downtown Colorado Springs in a drug deal that went bad. The civilian cops handled that one, but I oversaw the handling of his body, and it was my duty in both cases to call the parents of the soldiers and write letters of condolence. Before I wrote those letters, I talked to the rest of the guys in the platoon and included some of their stories. Some of what I wrote was about funny things they did or said, but mostly I tried to find a way to say that my platoon and I didn’t think their deaths had been in vain. They were good guys. They were our guys.
Non-combat deaths in the military are far more common than people think. According to the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center, between 1990 and 2011, 29,000 service members died non-combat deaths — 66 percent in transportation accidents, 20 percent suicides, and 10 percent “other,” which included homicides and illness. Only 40 percent of military deaths between 2004 and 2007 were “war-related.” The Congressional Research Service did a study of military deaths that showed 4,700 died during 1981 and 1982 from accidents, illness, suicide and homicide. 3,800 service members died in combat in 2005-2006. So a lot of the people being notified about their children’s or spouses’ deaths are learning that their loved ones didn’t die in war. They died, in the main, accidentally, but that didn’t make their deaths any easier to bear.
They say it’s the worst thing in the world to lose a son or a daughter. I have three kids, and I haven’t lost one, so I wouldn’t know from personal experience. But I’ve been close enough to see that it’s a very special hell on earth. That’s why the behavior of our president this week was so egregious. Forty-three service members have died in combat since Trump was inaugurated (I couldn’t determine the number of non-combat military deaths for the same time period, but there have doubtlessly been some). The AP tried to contact the families of all 43. Of those they could reach, nine families said they had “heard from Trump by phone or mail. Relatives of nine other said they haven’t.” Presidents don’t always call the families of soldiers when they die. More than 2,700 were killed in combat during the eight years Obama was president. He couldn’t, and didn’t, call all of their families. He knew that the military takes care of its own, and they’re very good at it.
I don’t think Trump knows what happens when a soldier dies. He waited 12 days before he contacted the families of the four Special Forces soldiers who were killed in an ambush in Niger, and during that time, he played golf at his own golf courses seven times. That was bad enough. But then he lied about his predecessors, Presidents Obama and Bush, saying that they hadn’t called the families of service members killed in combat, when in fact, they had. Then he lied when he said he had already sent letters to the families of the soldiers killed in Niger. He hadn’t. When he actually called the wife of Sergeant La David Johnson, he callously told her that her son “knew what he signed up for,” according to the soldier’s mother and Florida Congresswoman Frederica Wilson, who listened in on the call on speakerphone.
Then Trump denied what he said, calling the story told by the two women “fabricated” and claimed “I have proof.” Later he told reporters at the White House, “I didn’t say what that congresswoman said. Didn’t say it all, and she knows it.” By midafternoon the same day, White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders wouldn’t deny Trump used the words ascribed to him and acknowledged that the White House had not taped the conversation, basically confirming what everyone already knew, that Trump had lied.
Late Thursday, he dispatched his chief of staff, retired Marine General Kelly, to serve up a word-salad of excuses for his boss. Kelly said he had told Trump what his own casualty assistance officer, Marine General Joe Dunford, had said to him when his son was killed in combat in 2010. “He said, Kel, he was doing exactly what he wanted to do when he was killed. He knew what he was getting into by joining that one percent. He knew what the possibilities were because we’re at war. And when he died, Niger and my son’s case in Afghanistan — when he died, he was surrounded by the best men on earth, his friends. That’s what the President tried to say to four families the other day.”
My grandfather had a different take on what you say when a soldier dies. The Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist Bill Mauldin, who drew the “Willie and Joe” strip for Stars and Stripes and served under grandpa in Italy during the war, wrote in his memoir about what grandpa said when he spoke at the consecration of the American cemetery at Anzio in 1945.
"When Truscott spoke he turned away from the visitors and addressed himself to the corpses he had commanded here. It was the most moving gesture I ever saw. It came from a hard-boiled old man who was incapable of planned dramatics," Mauldin wrote. "The general's remarks were brief and extemporaneous. He apologized to the dead men for their presence here. He said everybody tells leaders it is not their fault that men get killed in war, but that every leader knows in his heart this is not altogether true.
"He said he hoped anybody here through any mistake of his would forgive him, but he realized that was asking a hell of a lot under the circumstances . . . he would not speak about the glorious dead because he didn't see much glory in getting killed if you were in your late teens or early twenties. He promised that if in the future he ran into anybody, especially old men, who thought death in battle was glorious, he would straighten them out. He said he thought that was the least he could do."
Nobody in the military wants to be the one who has to walk up to a house or an apartment somewhere and knock on the door and have to tell the wife or husband or parents of a soldier that their loved one has died. It’s described by those who have done it as the hardest thing you can do in the military. But it’s a duty, and soldiers carry out that duty with honor and dignity and kindness.
Grandpa was 55 when he promised at Anzio to “straighten out” any old men who thought dying in a war was “glorious.” It’s 72 years later. General Kelly is 67. President Trump is 71. I am 70. It seems to me that the old men who have given the orders still have a lot to learn from the soldiers we have sent out to die.