Metro

Families of the fallen say a president’s words do matter

The family of Marine Sergeant Daniel Vasselian (above, wife Erin) received a letter of condolence from the president.
John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/File 2014
The family of Marine Sergeant Daniel Vasselian (above, wife Erin) received a letter of condolence from the president.

The grieving parents of fallen soldiers do not forget the personal condolences of a president. Certainly, the expressions of gratitude and sympathy from two presidents would never leave them.

A month after his son Nicholas was killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan in 2009, Steven Xiarhos received an invitation to meet President Barack Obama, who offered comfort in an emotional meeting. At a Memorial Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery this year, he received condolences from President Trump.

“I saw and I felt the pain in both of them,” recalled Xiarhos, the deputy police chief in Yarmouth.

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But those emotional encounters with the nation’s leader at a time of intense loss — and similar experiences of other military families — have been cast in a new, political light this week by Trump’s controversial statement Monday that Obama and most of his predecessors did not typically call the families of service members killed in the line of duty.

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To some families, Trump’s assertion that former presidents did not call to extend their sympathies has drawn a swift backlash — and, in some cases, sadness by the families that the supreme sacrifices are being revisited.

Benjamin Rhodes, who served as deputy national security adviser under Obama, denounced Trump’s assertion as “an outrageous and disrespectful lie even by Trump’s standards.”

Christina Ayube of Salem, whose 25-year-old son was killed by a suicide bomber in Afghanistan in 2010, said she was dismayed by Trump’s words.

Obama spoke with her husband and daughter-in-law when Army Sergeant James Ayube’s body was delivered to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, she said. The president followed up with a personal letter of condolence.

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“His comments go right along with the rest of his performance on the national stage,” Ayube said of Trump. “It’s very disheartening, to put it lightly. This is a man who did everything he could to get out of going to Vietnam.”

Xiarhos, whose son was a Marine corporal, said Obama interrupted his vacation on Martha’s Vineyard to meet with the soldier’s family at Joint Base Cape Cod. When a Secret Service agent called the day before to request the meeting, Xiarhos agreed and assumed the gathering would be a large one.

“What’s happening? Is the president coming to meet 40 people?” Xiarhos asked the Secret Service. The agent replied, “You don’t understand. The president is coming to meet you.”

Xiarhos said he and his wife met with the president and Michelle Obama for 25 minutes, first with their three children and then as a couple.

Xiarhos said he vividly remembers the end of the private meeting, which occurred shortly before Obama decided to deploy an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan. Obama asked him, “I’m about to make a decision on Afghanistan. What do you want me to do?” Xiarhos recalled.

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“We told him not to give up, to stay in the fight and win that freedom. I’ll never forget what he said: ‘Thank you. When I make my decision, I’ll think of men and women like Nick.’ ”

Xiarhos said Trump also was compassionate when he spoke to him on Memorial Day.

“He took time, private time, with me and I showed him a picture of Nick. He asked what kind of a boy Nick was and said he was sorry,” Xiarhos said. “I really support the office of the president.”

After a follow-up question from reporters on Monday, Trump walked back his statement on the frequency of condolence calls by Obama and other former presidents.

“I was told that he didn’t often, and a lot of presidents don’t. They write letters. President Obama, I think, probably did sometimes and maybe sometimes he didn’t, I don’t know, that’s what I was told,” Trump said.

Although presidents do not call all families of fallen troops in every instance, the impact of a visit, phone call, or letter can be indelible.

Nancy Chamberlain, the mother of one of the first service members killed during the Iraq War, recalled the pain she felt when she did not receive condolences from the White House in 2003, when George W. Bush was president.

“I remember being disappointed in that I hadn’t heard from the president’s office,” said Chamberlain, who lives in Winslow, Maine. Her son, Marine helicopter pilot Jay Aubin, died when he crashed during the first night of the invasion.

“I just recall thinking that here my son has given his life, I just found out about it, and they can’t take two minutes to call me,” Chamberlain said. “I was in the throes of it, and it’s probably not something I should have expected.”

Karen Vasselian, the mother of Marine Sergeant Daniel M. Vasselian, a 27-year-old Abington native who was killed in Afghanistan in 2013, said she was unaware of Trump’s comments. She said her family received a letter of condolence from Obama after her son’s death but declined further comment.

The father of Medal of Honor recipient Jared C. Monti, an Army sergeant who was killed in Afghanistan in 2006, said Obama called to personally notify him that his late son was selected for the nation’s highest military honor in 2009.

Paul Monti held the medal of honor certificate signed by President Obama in 2009, given to his son.
John Tlumacki/Globe staff
Paul Monti held the medal of honor certificate signed by President Obama in 2009, given to his son.

“He told me that the nation was proud of my son, that he was proud of my son, and that he knew I was proud of my son,” Paul R. Monti said in a telephone interview from his Raynham home. “I remember that distinctly.”

That memory was hard to reconcile with Trump’s comments, he said.

“It’s kind of sad that something like this has to be in the news,” he said. “It’s just more tearing our country apart.”

Monti said he hopes his son’s death and the final sacrifices made by other service men and women are not forgotten.

“I’m living with my horror, as are all the other Gold Star families,’’ he said. “We just, I don’t know, live day to day hoping that what our children gave will end up as something positive for the country. Right now, I don’t see a positive country. It’s just divided, and that’s kind of sad.”

Travis Andersen of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at brian.macquarrie@globe.com. John R. Ellement can be reached at ellement@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @JREbosglobe.