State's Gold Star Families weigh in on whether president call is necessary

Beth Dively, left, widow of U.S. Air Force Maj. Duane Dively, is presented with a Gold Star lapel pin from Capt. Paul Whitescarver, right, commanding officer of Naval Submarine Base New London, during the Bells Across America for Fallen Service Members: A Gold Star Family Remembrance event held on the Historic Ship Nautilus in Groton, Conn., on Sept. 22, 2016. (Tim Martin/The Day)
Beth Dively, left, widow of U.S. Air Force Maj. Duane Dively, is presented with a Gold Star lapel pin from Capt. Paul Whitescarver, right, commanding officer of Naval Submarine Base New London, during the Bells Across America for Fallen Service Members: A Gold Star Family Remembrance event held on the Historic Ship Nautilus in Groton, Conn., on Sept. 22, 2016. (Tim Martin/The Day)

Twelve years after the death of her husband, Beth Dively still reads, at times, the letters of condolences that were sent to her.

She thinks kindly of those who sent them, appreciating that they took a minute out of their day to honor and remember her husband, Air Force Maj. Duane Dively, who died in a 2005 plane crash while on his way back to his base from a mission in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.

"They're not exactly in the bottom of my closet," Dively, 56, of Old Saybrook, said of the letters, which she pulls out of a chest and reads "on those days when I feel like I need that encouragement."

But Dively never received a call or letter from the president, or an invitation to the White House, as others have, making her feel she was left out.

"It's kind of like my husband died in vain," she said, adding that a phone call is "the least a president could do" to recognize that ultimate sacrifice.

She was bothered by President Donald Trump's condolence call to the widow of one of four U.S. soldiers killed in an Oct. 4 ambush in Niger. During the call, the president told the woman that her husband "knew what he signed up for."

"That's not a good way to talk to a grieving person," Dively said, adding that "Anyone in a hazardous job knows what they're walking into."

Trump's phone call to the widow of U.S. Army Sgt. La David T. Johnson has spurred discussion about how presidents usually respond in such situations, and whether the general public truly understands the sacrifices of service members, who make up about 1 percent of the U.S. population, and their families.

In defending Trump's response, White House chief of staff John Kelly on Thursday gave a detailed picture of what happens to service members after they die, and how their families are notified.

"Their buddies wrap them up in whatever passes as a shroud, put them on a helicopter as a routine, and send them home," Kelly said. "They're packed in ice, typically at the airhead. And then they're flown to, usually, Europe where they're then packed in ice again and flown to Dover Air Force Base, where Dover takes care of the remains, embalms them, meticulously dresses them in their uniform with the medals that they've earned, the emblems of their service."

As for the notification, "While that's happening, a casualty officer typically goes to the home very early in the morning and waits for the first lights to come on ... and proceeds to break the heart of a family member," Kelly said.

Some presidents "have elected to call" the families, he said, and all presidents, he believes, "have elected to send letters."

"Typically, the only phone calls a family receives are the most important phone calls they could imagine, and that is from their buddies," said Kelly, a retired Marine general whose son 2nd Lt. Robert Kelly was killed in Afghanistan in 2010.

"Hours after my son was killed, his friends were calling us from Afghanistan, telling us what a great guy he was. Those are the only phone calls that really mattered," he said.

Gladys Rivera, 62, Waterford

Gladys Rivera received an outpouring of support after her son Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Edwin Rivera died in May 2010 in Afghanistan.

In addition to receiving condolences from the community, soldiers who served with her son and government officials, Rivera also received an unexpected letter signed by then President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama.

Even to this day, Rivera receives cards from those who knew her son and invitations to events honoring Gold Star Families. She has her son's picture on the window of her car, and people will stop her or leave messages thanking her for his service.

"Some of these people, we shake hands. Others, we hug," she said. "It's important to know that he's not going to be forgotten for what he did."

Trump's call with Myeshia Johnson, Sgt. Johnson's widow, also upset Rivera.

"For me, as a mother, I knew what my son was getting into but I didn't need him rubbing it in my face," she said. "Before my son left, he was very clear and expressed his feelings about why he chose to serve the country because he loved his country."

Kathryn Cross, 60, Glastonbury

Kathryn Cross's 21-year-old son Tyler Connely, a Navy seaman, was killed in a truck accident on active duty in Keflavik, Iceland, on Jan. 15, 2002.

Cross didn't receive a call from President George W. Bush but "months and months and months later," she got a letter in the mail with a presidential certificate that had a "rubber stamp signature" from him.

"That was my thank you for your son's service and sorry for loss," she said, noting the impersonal nature of the letter was hurtful, and that it still upsets her to this day.

"I would've loved to hear from Mrs. Bush 'I'm sorry for your loss.' That's all it takes. It didn't have to be him. The way it came was hurtful," she said of the stamped signature.

Still, she framed the letter and put it on a shelf in her china cupboard.

"I look at it, though, and know my community and fellow people are grateful and appreciate my son's sacrifice even if the White House really didn't get it," she said.

The whole town came to Tyler's funeral, she said.

"It meant a great deal that the community came to support me, but more so to support my son who had given his life for his country," Cross said.

Mary Kight, 88, Waterbury

When Mary Kight lost her 21-year-old son Warrant Officer Michael Kight in a helicopter accident in 1967 while he was serving on active duty during the Vietnam War, "the last thing in the world that I was worried about was whether I was going to get a call from the president."

She didn't get a call but she did get a letter, which, even though it was a "standard letter," she thought was a nice gesture. The letter came weeks after her son's death, she said, but "that gave me time to get over the shock so when I got it, I appreciated it."

As far as President Lyndon B. Johnson calling the families during that time, the death toll was so high, she said, "how was he going to call all of those people?"

Kight is president of the Connecticut chapter of American Gold Star Mothers and said she's talked to a few other mothers, whose children fought in the Iraq War, who feel the same way she does.

"Especially at a time like that, you have so many other things that you are worried about," she said. "Even to this day, it doesn't bother me that he didn't call."

j.bergman@theday.com

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