The families of U.S. service members who have died while serving their country are split on how they see President Trump’s recognition of a recent military widow at his first joint address to Congress, but they almost universally support her decision to accept Trump’s invitation to attend in the Capitol.
The moment was the emotional apex of Trump’s speech Tuesday night, in which he said Senior Chief William “Ryan” Owens, a member of the elite SEAL Team 6, “died as he lived — a warrior and a hero, battling against terrorism and securing our nation.”
The following moments sparked an outcry among critics of Trump, as he insisted that the Jan. 29 raid in Yemen in which the SEAL was killed “generated large amounts of vital intelligence that will lead to many more victories in the future against our enemy,” contradicting other U.S. officials briefed on the operation. The overlaying of grief and politics prompted allegations that Trump had politicized and exploited the situation for his own gain, rather than simply honoring the Owens family.
The moment also put Carryn Owens, a mother of three from Virginia Beach, in the spotlight. As Trump recognized her husband’s sacrifice, tears poured down her cheeks and she cast her eyes skyward while standing on a balcony and apparently speaking some private words to her late husband. The widow, who did not respond to requests for an interview, had not spoken publicly following her husband’s death but was invited to attend the speech by Trump. The president wanted to respect “her wishes and privacy” and sought approval before including her in his address, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said.
Hundreds of miles away in North Carolina, the scene deeply struck Jenna Kemp, whose elite Marine Raider husband, Staff Sgt. Kerry Kemp, was killed in a helicopter crash two years ago off the coast of Florida. At this point, Kemp said, the new widow is “on autopilot,” recalling how she had an 11-month-old infant and a second child on the way when her husband died.
“It looked like she mouthed, ‘I love you, baby,’ ” Kemp said. “That brought tears to my eyes. I uttered those exact words over my husband’s casket. I just felt such a connection to her, and such respect for her being there.”
Trump’s moment with Carryn Owens immediately lit up social-media networks, and was complicated in part by Trump’s remarks in a Fox News interview aired that morning in which he declined to accept responsibility for the mission, in which numerous civilians also were killed. The generals, Trump said, had “wanted to do” the operation and had “lost Ryan” — remarks that struck some as the president abdicating his role as commander in chief.
One critic on Twitter, Dan Grilo, said that Carryn Owens was “not helping yourself or your husband’s memory by standing there and clapping like an idiot. Trump just used you.” Grilo, who listed himself as a volunteer for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, apologized and later made his profile page private. His listed employer on LinkedIn, Liberty Advisor Group of Chicago, later announced that it was aware an employee had made “an offensive or inappropriate tweet” and had fired him. He could not be reached for comment.
Several conservative websites accused some Democrats, such as Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), Rep. Keith Ellison (D.-Minn.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), of refusing to stand and applaud in respect as Trump led applause for the Owens family. A review of video of the address shows virtually all lawmakers standing within seconds and applauding at some point, although some eventually sat down as Trump continued to clap and did not return to his podium for more than two minutes.
Bonnie Carroll, a Gold Star widow who was recognized by President Barack Obama in 2015 with the Presidential Medal of Freedom for leading the nonprofit Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS), watched the address and decided to issue a statement afterward thanking the president and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis for “recognizing the sacrifices that our military families make every day to keep our nation free.”
TAPS, which has supported tens of thousands of family members since it was established in 1992, called for more civility in politics after Trump verbally attacked the parents of fallen Army Capt. Humayun Khan during the presidential campaign. In the case of Carryn Owens, however, Carroll said the president of the United States has long played an integral part in helping the survivors of military fatalities with their grieving, and appeared to do so this week.
“I saw this as an appropriate acknowledgment to service and sacrifice to this nation,” Carroll said.
As the wife of a Special Operations service member, Carryn Owens knew that her husband would be in danger and likely was trying to honor him in the best way she could, said Destiny Flynn, an Army veteran whose Marine Raider husband, Staff Sgt. Liam Flynn, died in the same crash as Kemp. Most people who questioned the widow’s thought process haven’t gone through the same kind of grief, Flynn said.
“I just feel like if I was in her position I would have done the same thing because I don’t want people to forget,” she said. “That’s what people don’t see. I saw strength and grace and beauty. I felt like she wasn’t there crying for herself. It wasn’t about her. It was about her husband.”
In Pennsylvania, Jessica Charles watched and drew a distinction between Trump’s potential motives and the desires of Carryn Owens. Charles’s brother, Army Cpl. Joshua Harton, was killed in Afghanistan in September 2010, and she said the first month afterward was “hell.” Backlash against the wife, she added, is unfair.
“Whether she is being used for political favor or not, she is a wife who recently lost her husband. She grieves. We who grieve those killed in combat want to know it was not a sacrifice in vain,” Charles said. “Wanting to hear the POTUS acknowledge her husband’s sacrifice is not wrong. In a way, we all want that level of recognition. The way that desire is being used is questionable.”
The scene in the Capitol disgusted Silvia Earhart, a Gold Star wife and Army veteran. Trump’s actions, she said, showed once again that he likes using U.S. service members and their families as props. Earhart’s husband, Staff Sgt. Leslie Martin, was killed in a helicopter crash at Fort Bragg, N.C., in July 1997, and she said she struggled afterward even to attend a memorial service on base in honor of her husband and seven other soldiers who were killed.
“I don’t think he recognized Ryan Owens at all,” Earhart said of the president. “He was recognizing the widow, and me personally as a widow, I never wanted the attention like that. I always wanted it directly on my husband and what he did and what he sacrificed. I kept saying, ‘Why are you showing her grief like that?’ It’s still so raw for her, and to be put up there on national television, I don’t think Trump was being genuine and authentic.”
Two Gold Star mothers who have met with Trump said they have found him genuine and sincerely concerned about their pain in private meetings.
Susan Price, whose son, Gunnery Sgt. Aaron Kenefick, was among five Americans killed in an ambush in Afghanistan in September 2009, said she was amazed at the ignorance some people showed toward Carryn Owens. Price, who spoke last year on behalf Trump at a rally in Florida, said that she cried as she watched the recent widow recognized and believes she felt compelled to appear before Congress.
“I don’t know if he was looking for extra fame or glory by bringing the wife into the ceremony,” Price said of the president. “But I do know that he does care about our military and our heroes, and that’s what matters to me.”
Debbie Lee, whose son, Marc Lee, was the first Navy SEAL killed during the Iraq War, said she had no problem with how Trump handled recognizing Owens, and found him very respectful when she met him before the Army-Navy college football game in December. He asked “deep questions” about her grieving process and how she has coped with her loss, she said.
“You could see it in his eyes,” Lee said of her meeting with Trump. “He wasn’t looking away at his security detail or looking at those who had been in the car with him. He was totally focused on me and what I shared about Marc.”