As the loved ones of armed forces members killed in combat, Gold Star families always have enjoyed a wide latitude to express their grief — and their opinions — without fear of rebuke.
But furor over Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s remarks to a Gold Star family suddenly has altered the security of that landscape.
Some Minnesota Gold Star families say they are angry, uneasy and frustrated as they are thrust into an uncomfortable position of taking sides. It has also brought up the pain — never far beneath the surface to begin with — of loved ones lost to war.
Seven years to the day after more than 700 people crowded into Rosemount High School to honor the memory and heroism of Jill Stephenson’s son, Army Ranger Cpl. Ben Kopp, she finds it disturbing that the sacrifices American families have made on the battlefield are now so politicized on the campaign trail.
“Gold Star families do not divide ourselves politically,” Stephenson said Monday, the anniversary of the memorial service for her son, who died in 2009 from wounds suffered during a gun battle with Taliban fighters in Afghanistan. “When we’re in a room with each other, we don’t talk about that.”
But that has changed since the Democratic National Convention, after a feud broke out between Trump and the family of Capt. Humayun Khan, who died while serving in Iraq in 2004. Khizr Khan, the father of the captain, criticized Trump for his attacks on American Muslims, saying the Republican candidate had sacrificed “nothing and no one” in the fight against terror.
Trump, in turn, offered a stern rebuke to the father and questioned why the fallen soldier’s mother did not speak at the convention, suggesting she may have been prohibited because she is Muslim.
The national Veterans of Foreign Wars condemned Trump’s remarks and called for him to apologize.
The Trump-Kahn debate may be only the latest skirmish in what promises to be one of the nastiest presidential campaigns in history, a flare-up that could be quickly forgotten when new confrontations arrive.
But it surfaces personally as Stephenson just completed work on the sixth annual Ben Kopp Memorial Ride. She lives in Florida but returned to Minnesota for last weekend’s event, a two-day 150-mile motorcycle ride, raffle and pig roast to keep the memory of her son alive, to honor other fallen military members and to benefit Minnesota veterans.
“As our sons and daughters served our country, they were not concerned when they were out there fighting which side of the political fence their brothers and sisters were on,” she said. “Their only concern was who was on their left and who was on their right.”
While Stephenson, who now speaks out on the value of organ donation, prefers to remain circumspect about the latest flare-up, she does take issue with Trump’s assertion that he, too, has sacrificed: by creating thousands of jobs.
“I don’t think that comparing business sacrifices to the loss of a child is a fair comparison,” she said. “Making a business sacrifice is a choice; losing a child is not.”
The controversy also bothers Becky Lourey, whose son, Matt, an Army pilot, was killed in 2005 when his helicopter was shot down and crashed in central Iraq.
“I can’t believe that Donald Trump doesn’t take a moment to think about the things he is saying,” she said.
Lourey, a former state senator and onetime DFL candidate for Minnesota governor, found Trump’s comments a reflection of what she sees as his isolation and insensitivity. Lourey is expected to join two DFL Minnesota legislators who are veterans on Tuesday to call on Trump to retract his remarks in an event coordinated by the campaign of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
“How can you compare employing people to losing a child to war?” asked Lourey, who employs 49 people in her own family business. “It speaks to how few people do lose their children or loved ones to war. They’re not really exposed to it.”
A portion of the second floor of Lourey’s Kerrick, Minn., home is devoted to memorabilia from her son’s funeral service and his burial at Arlington National Cemetery. Lourey said she watched Kahn’s speech last week on television and became emotional relating to what the family has gone through.
“What he was speaking for was how much he loves America and how much Muslims love America and speaking about the Constitution and how America was founded on everyone coming here and being a melting pot and loving our country and serving our country,” she said.
Trump’s remarks represent a conflict for Kim Schmit, of Willmar. She lost her son, Army Sgt. Joshua Schmit, to a roadside bomb in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2007; and her husband, Minnesota Army National Guard Sgt. Greg Schmit, to suicide in 2015.
She heard Trump speak on a Memorial Day trip to Washington, D.C., this year as part of Rolling Thunder, a traveling motorcycle rally that supports the U.S. military and its veterans. She was impressed with what he said, lifting her phone up to record the speech in which he railed against the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“He was the only one I’ve heard that said he was going to fix the broken system for veterans,” she said.
But having followed the ongoing controversy over the weekend, she says she is shaken by what she has seen and heard.
“I am amazed by some of the vile things that he has vomited out his mouth,” she said. “Now I don’t know what to think.”