When a U.S. service member dies in combat anywhere in the world, the military will try to notify the families as soon as physically possible, typically with two service members, one being a chaplain, visiting the family’s home, or whoever is next of kin, in the hopes of reaching the loved ones before the internet does.
A process called a “dignified transfer” is then conducted where the remains are transferred in a flag-covered transfer case from the aircraft that brought them home from war to a car that will take them to the Armed Forces’ medical examiner for autopsy. This happens for the vast majority of service members who die in combat, according to the U.S. Air Force, the branch that primarily oversees the process.
But there’s much less uniformity when it comes to the White House’s response. That subject is front and center this week after President Trump tried to address why he hadn’t called the families of four soldiers killed in Niger Oct. 4, saying his predecessors rarely called family members — patently false — then on Wednesday called the widow of one of the Niger soldiers and reportedly said, “He knew what he signed up for.” Former service members lashed out, asserting it isn’t actually what most sign up for and since only 16 service members have been killed in 2017, it’s actually a rare tragedy.
“Never in a million years do you think that will happen.”
“You don’t sign up expecting to die, but you do sign up with the intention that if it comes to it, that you give your life for your country,” said former Special Operations Forces intelligence analyst Brett Velikovich. “Never in a million years do you think that will happen.”
Call, write, or nothing at all?
But there is no official White House protocol for how a president is supposed to commemorate a fallen service member. There’s no mandate requiring presidents to greet the remains at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, or call each and every one of the families at length, or attend funerals, or even write letters. The one general consensus appears to be response time, which should rarely be longer than a week.
When four Green Berets — Staff Sgts. Bryan Black, 35, Jeremiah Johnson, 39, Dustin Wright, 29, and La David Johnson, 25 — died in an ambush in Niger earlier this month, the Department of Defense appeared to have followed typical protocol. But the White House’s response diverged, despite Trump’s claims.
“The traditional way, if you look at President Obama and other presidents, most of them didn’t make calls,” the president said Monday, citing no evidence. “A lot of them didn’t make calls. I like to call when it’s appropriate, when I think I’m able to do it.”
“I actually wrote letters individually to the soldiers we’re talking about, and they’re going to be going out either today or tomorrow,” Trump added.
But it had been nearly two weeks since the death of the four men, a period that former officials deemed much too long.
“Somebody screwed up here, OK?” former CIA director Leon Panetta told the Washington Post. “You don’t let that amount of time pass when our men and women in uniform have been killed.”
Richard Siemion, who in 2011 was a casualty notification officer and had to notify families their loved ones passed away, told VICE News that the military had a strict protocol when it came to dealing with fallen service members, but to expect presidents to call every single family of a soldier who dies is, unfortunately, a “gigantic task.”
What former presidents did
Still, former President George W. Bush wrote letters to every single family that had a service member death, and he met with some of them privately at military bases, one of Bush’s top aides, Dan Bartlett, told the New York Times at the height of the Iraq War in 2003.
And that was when combat deaths were soaring to over 800 a year.
Former President Obama also made calls and wrote letters to offer his condolences to families. He also frequently attended the dignified transfers at Dover Air Force base, where the service members’ remains returned from the war theatre.
A former official told NBC News that “President Trump’s claim is wrong,” that Obama sometimes made calls, and that he “engaged families of the fallen and wounded warriors throughout his presidency through calls, letters, visits to Section 60 at Arlington, visits to Walter Reed, visits to Dover, and regular meetings with Gold Star Families at the White House and across the country.”
The White House did not immediately respond to VICE News’ request for comment about whether an official protocol had been written for the president’s response to soldiers killed in action, and whether Trump would be attending the funerals.
Instead, Trump exaggerated the number of calls he was having to make to families of fallen service members, telling reporters Monday, “Now it gets to a point where you make four or five of them in one day, it’s a very, very tough day. For me that’s by far the toughest.”
In reality, there have been 16 combat deaths since the start of 2017, a fraction of the deaths Bush and Obama saw during their terms.