When Debbie Lee heard what Gen. Martin E. Dempsey had to say about the Iraqi city her son was killed in, the tears fell.

Speaking to reporters at the Pentagon on April 16, Dempsey dismissed the symbolic importance of Ramadi in the fight against the Islamic State militant group that has seized large amount of territory in Iraq. The city is home to more than 480,000 people, and was the site of fierce fighting that killed scores of U.S. troops during the Iraq War. It is now under attack again, with militants and Iraqi troops locked in a battle that could continue for weeks.

Dempsey said that the United States is working with the Iraqi government to help with a humanitarian crisis and the flood of refugees fleeing to relative safety. But Ramadi is “not symbolic in anyway,” he said.

“It’s not been declared, you know, part of the caliphate, on the one hand, or central to the future of Iraq,” Dempsey said. He added that he “would much rather that Ramadi not fall,” but that it wouldn’t spell the end of the military campaign against the Islamic State if it did.

The remarks put Dempsey, often praised for his extensive support for fallen service members and their families, in an unusual position. Lee, whose son Marc became the first Navy SEAL killed in Iraq during a Ramadi firefight in in 2006, was furious. She penned an open letter to Dempsey that demanded an apology to the American families whose loved ones were lost or wounded in Ramadi. It went viral.

“Ramadi matters to us and is very symbolic to us,” the Gold Star mother wrote. “You need to apologize to our troops whose bodies were blown to pieces from [improvised explosive devices] and bullet holes leaving parts and pieces behind, Ramadi matters to them. You need to apologize to our troops who endured the extreme temperatures and battled the terrorists in some of the worst battlefields in Iraq, Ramadi matters to them. They carry vivid memories of the battles and the teammates whose future is gone, Ramadi matters to them.”

On Tuesday, Dempsey called Lee in her home state of Arizona to apologize for any pain he caused, she said. He’d already sent a letter conveying similar sentiments, but the general and the mother discussed the future of Iraq and the sacrifices that have been made there, she said.

“The apology was maybe a little softer than I had hoped for,” she told The Washington Post. “But I am pleased that at least we got an apology.”

In his letter, Dempsey drew a distinction between the enemies in Ramadi now and those the United States has fought in years past.

“We are in a different fight now, with a different enemy, and with a different relationship with the Government of Iraq,” he wrote. “They must determine the path of this fight. That’s what I intended to convey.”

The recapture of parts of Ramadi by Iraqi forces has sown fear and confusion among thousands who have fled the fighting with some returning while others run away. (Reuters)

Dempsey also said that Lee and his fellow troops “won their fight, and nothing will ever diminish their accomplishments nor the honor in which we hold their service.”

Lee said that she disagrees with Dempsey that the United States is fighting a different enemy in Iraq now, as the Islamic State launches attacks rather than al-Qaeda in Iraq. Though the groups formally split last year, she sees the enemy as very much the same.

“I told him I don’t agree with that at all,” Lee said. “They change their tactics a little bit and change their name, but it’s still the same enemy.”

Dempsey has remained quiet on the controversy, but the Pentagon confirmed the existence of the letter. Dempsey has long kept index cards on the soldiers he lost in Iraq as a commander and visited regularly with families of fallen service members.

“On my desk in the Pentagon sits a small wooden box, and in it are 129 small laminated cards, and on each card is a picture of a soldier that I’ve lost under my command in Baghdad in 2003 and 2004.  And I carry three others in my pocket at all times,” he told graduates at Duke University last year. “On that box in the Pentagon on my desk are three simple words:  Make it matter.”