Heroes or “losers”: Trump taints Memorial Day with divided memories

Let's honor the memory of those Americans who sacrificed everything. Trump calls them “losers”

By Brian Karem


Published May 27, 2024 6:00AM (EDT)

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks as Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman, Army General Mark Milley looks on after a briefing from senior military leaders in the Cabinet Room at the White House on October 7, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks as Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman, Army General Mark Milley looks on after a briefing from senior military leaders in the Cabinet Room at the White House on October 7, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

To many, Memorial Day is a vague acknowledgment of loss. For admiral John Kirby, White House national security communications adviser, Memorial Day boils down to remembering Major Jaimie Leonard. U.S. Army Major Leonard, a former Warwick. N.Y. resident, died in Afghanistan in 2013.

“The last time I saw her was in Afghanistan at some base, somewhere,” Kirby wrote in a piece that ran in the Warwick Advertiser 11 years ago.

“Hey, sir” Kirby recalled her yelling to him when he saw her for the last time, “Embrace the suck yet?”

It is, as Major Leonard described it, a common phrase in the Army from soldiers trying to deal with the vicissitudes of Army life. It is, according to Kirby, a trooper’s way of not merely accepting military hardships but embracing them to the point of pride. Army life may be tough but the trooper is tougher.

Major Leonard, according to Kirby, was a woman of incredible optimism and good humor. She died at the hands of someone in an Afghan uniform. “I don’t know all the details. I don’t want to know all the details,” Kirby wrote.

Her death moved him dramatically and does to this day. “That’s what Memorial Day means to me, Brian,” he explained.

Trump has never served in the military and actively avoided service.

To Kirby and those who’ve served, Memorial Day is a recognition of what it means to be an American and the responsibility of citizenship. It is something the rest of us should never forget.

For me, it is about the honored thanks I give to members of the 41st Combat Support Hospital with whom I spent time during the first Gulf War. I remember them as I do every Veterans Day. Armed only with a camera and microphone, I deployed with them to Saudi Arabia and spent time with them in “Cement City,” where I saw the open burning pits that cost President Biden the loss of his eldest son. I interviewed a member of the unit who feared he would die in the conflict,so we videotaped his marriage proposal to his girlfriend. When we returned to San Antonio, we played it for her and she smiled, cried and accepted his proposal. He survived. They were married. I also remember videotaping one medic’s baby daughter before we returned to deploy with the unit into Iraq. He had never met his infant daughter. We gave him that opportunity.

Of all the work I’ve done, the two documentaries that I produced for a local NBC affiliate before I was 30, “Good to Go” and “Texans at War,” are some of the most personally meaningful and heartfelt things I’ve ever had the pleasure to work on.

Most of the soldiers I’ve met, in a variety of conflict zones during the last four decades, have all had a sense of humor about their plight, while also taking their responsibilities seriously. They are among the best of us. I’ve known those who’ve sacrificed themselves for the greater good, those who’ve looked after their fellow troopers as family, and I know they all firmly believe they are upholding the greatest principles of citizenship and democracy. They do so for low pay, in dangerous working conditions and do so separated from their families for months at a time. While serving overseas in a conflict zone, members of the military are as far away from American life as possible, yet will give their last breath to defend it. Among the members of the military I’ve known are those seeking U.S. citizenship, those who are first generation born in this country, and those who saw the military as a way to have “the good life,” I’ve been told.

One soldier I interviewed who later died in Afghanistan told me, “I will make whatever sacrifices I have to make to give my children a chance to grow up without having to worry about being in poverty.”

Jackie “The Joke Man” Martling spent two weeks entertaining troops in Iraq with country rocker Bo Bice, in 2008. “We signed photos hours after each show and talked to everyone for hours after each show. And every member of every audience was incredibly appreciative, beyond my imagination,” he told me. “Our time overseas entertaining the troops was the most American I’d ever felt.”

Then there is comedian Tom Arnold. His grandfather fought as a member of the 42nd Rainbow Division in World War II. He saw action in the Ardennes (the Battle of the Bulge) and served as a medic who helped liberate more than 30,000 people from the Dachau concentration camp. “He seemed a little crabby when I was a kid,” Arnold remembered of his grandfather. “But you can understand.” Arnold said his grandfather told him “how awful and shocking” Dachau was and how it “changed everyone” who ever saw it firsthand. “We cannot forget,” he added.

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We can never forget the sacrifices our veterans made, even if we sometimes question the political decisions — namely during the Vietnam War — that put our veterans in harm’s way in the first place. We owe it to ourselves to be able to do both. 

Abraham Lincoln said it best in the Gettysburg Address from November 19, 1863:

The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did . . . It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us - that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion - that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom - and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

For years I have marveled at the sense of humor, sense of responsibility and dedication of our men and women who bear arms. I have, like many, sometimes questioned the futility of political motives that led to their deaths. But I cannot forget what it is that they did and still do; how some of them made me laugh or cry — how truly and purely American their efforts have been.

And so, it’s even tougher this Memorial Day to watch Donald Trump. 

Former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly confirmed last October that his old boss, Trump, repeatedly insulted wounded veterans, dead American soldiers from World War I and U.S. service members killed in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Trump called those who gave their “last full measure of devotion” a bunch of losers. He denigrated Gold Star families. He called the 1,800 marines killed during the bloody Battle of Belleau Wood in World War I “suckers” for dying in action. It was, at the time, one of the largest battles in U.S. history. It took a month to liberate the woods, and is the source for two very famous quotes; “Retreat? Hell, we just got here,” and "Come on, you sons of bitches. Do you want to live forever?" It is noteworthy that Kelly is a former Marine Corps general.

Trump has never served in the military and actively avoided service. His “bone spurs” memes are still popular on social media. He insults those who have served. He has no empathy for those who’ve sacrificed. He trivializes their pain. He doesn’t understand what it means to sacrifice and he cares nothing for America, only himself.

Yet some veterans still support Trump – conveniently forgetting that Trump has insulted service members who died serving our country and openly supported those who would destroy our democracy.

This Memorial Day, please remember that. 

By Brian Karem

Brian Karem is the former senior White House correspondent for Playboy. He has covered every presidential administration since Ronald Reagan, sued Donald Trump three times successfully to keep his press pass, spent time in jail to protect a confidential source, covered wars in the Middle East and is the author of seven books. His latest is "Free the Press."

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Commentary Donald Trump Gold Star Families John Kelly John Kirby Memorial Day Veterans