Ardie Wright got the condolence call from President Donald Trump on his cellphone about 3 p.m. Tuesday. Trump, the Georgia resident said, expressed his sympathy and then patiently listened to him talk about his beloved son, Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright, 29, a Green Beret who was killed during an ambush in Niger on Oct. 4.
“It went probably 20 minutes or more and I did 17 or 18 minutes of the talking,” Wright, who operates an onion processing business in Vidalia, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Thursday. “He was very cordial and polite.”
Meanwhile, Calvin Murphy said he has not received such a phone call — or even a letter — from the commander-in-chief since his son, Spc. Etienne Murphy of Loganville, 22, died in a vehicle rollover in Syria in May.
“He is their commander-in-chief and every life matters,” Murphy told MSNBC. “He is the one who ultimately has to make the decision for them to go, so he should care about each soldier and every family.”
Both Gold Star fathers shared their widely differing experiences this week amid a growing firestorm over how the president is treating grieving military families.
It began when Trump said President Barack Obama and other presidents often did not contact the families of deceased troops, a claim quickly refuted. Then on Wednesday, the mother of one of Dustin Wright’s fellow soldiers, Sgt. La David Johnson, 25, accused Trump of disrespecting her family in a condolence call Tuesday. She said Trump told Johnson’s widow her husband “knew what he signed up for” and referred to him only as “your guy.” Trump has denied that account, complaining his words have been twisted for political purposes.
There are similarities to his bitter feud last year with the parents of Humayun Khan, a Muslim American soldier who was killed in Iraq in 2004. Khan’s father criticized Trump during an appearance at the Democratic National Convention.
Also Wednesday, the White House confirmed it had sent a $25,000 check to Sgt. Dillon Baldridge, who was gunned down by an Afghan police officer in June. Trump promised the check in a telephone conversation with Baldridge’s father a few weeks after his death, The Washington Post reported. But the White House had not sent the check out until the newspaper inquired about it Wednesday.
Getting pulled into the controversy swirling around Trump has been wrenching for Wright’s and Murphy’s families. Both are trying to keep the focus on the troops.
Murphy’s parents, for example, have appeared on MSNBC and CNN to share their son’s story: He was a member of JROTC at South Gwinnett High School and joined the Army after graduating. He left behind a wife and two young sons. Murphy’s mother, Sheila, said she recently wrote a letter to Trump explaining her grief five months after losing her son.
“It wasn’t a mean letter,” she told the Associated Press. “I was telling him I know he’s a grandfather. I told him I’m trying to be here for my grandkids, but some days I don’t want to live.”
Dustin’s older brother, Will, called the controversy about the president’s phone calls a distraction. The focus, he said, should be on the U.S. troops.
“Everything that detracts from their legacy to focus on the president is not constructive,” he said. “It is just divisive. And we are about uniting our nation, not dividing it.”
Will remembers his brother as an imposing in stature — six feet, three inches and about 230 pounds – but extremely kind. He was an offensive lineman on the Toombs County High School football team. And he played second base on his school’s baseball team.
“He was strong and tough and rugged, and at the same time he was so soft,” Will said. “If you sat down in a room with him and talked, you knew you were getting something real. The man had an amazing heart. And he loved everybody.”
Like Dustin, Will served in the U.S. Army. So did their parents. Relatives have served in the U.S. military going back at least as far as the War of 1812. Some have fought in the Civil War, World War II and the Vietnam War. Dustin was the first of his family to be killed in combat.
Will said he last spoke with his brother by phone on his birthday, Sept. 24. Dustin told him he was planning to eventually join the National Guard and move to the Philadelphia area where he could be close to his girlfriend, a special education teacher. They met at a music festival in Myrtle Beach, S.C., last summer and were planning to get married.
Ardie Wright said his son Dustin was sweet and chubby as a little boy, calling him “a bright light in a dark room.” He added that he was touched by how so many flag-waving Georgians saluted as his son’s remains were driven to the funeral home in Vidalia this month.
“The streets were lined with hundreds and hundreds of people with flags and stuff,” he said. “Everybody turned out. Everybody loved Dustin. He was something special in town and everybody knew it.”
And of the call he got from Trump, Ardie said: “That’s a heck of an honor. It’s just a hell of a way to get it.”