President Trump’s reported comments in The Atlantic, in which he refers to the 2,289 American service members buried at Aisne-Marne American Cemetery as “losers” and “suckers” are outlandish and represent a dereliction of duty in his role as commander in chief.
As a commissioner on the American Battle Monuments Commission from 2010 to 2014, I — along with my fellow commissioners — oversaw America’s overseas military cemeteries. Appointed by President Obama, we were accountable to Congress for the fiscal upkeep of each of these installations across nine countries. We also represented the United States at multilateral ceremonies on foreign soil and, alongside our allies, honored America’s fallen as well as renewed our shared commitment to liberty and democracy. Over four years, I represented the Obama administration at more than 20 military cemeteries around the globe — including two official visits to Aisne-Marne in France. I have spent hours walking among the gravestones of fellow Marines and service members, learning the stories of their abbreviated lives from the dedicated men and women of the American Battle Monuments Commission, who watch over our fallen each day.
America has 25 military cemeteries overseas, which are the final resting places of more than 100,000 Americans who gave their lives in the name of freedom in World War I and World War II. Many Americans have heard of Normandy American Cemetery in France, where roughly 9,400 Americans are buried. Most of the cemeteries are located on the actual grounds and former battlefields where our brave Marines, soldiers, and sailors fought. In addition to Normandy, the other cemeteries include Aisne-Marne, or “Belleau Wood,” about 50 miles northeast of Paris — a cemetery that Trump was scheduled to visit in 2018 but skipped due to bad weather, when it was deemed unsafe for his helicopter to fly. As a former Marine Corps officer and Iraq veteran, the opportunity to visit Aisne-Marne is the chance of a lifetime. It is sacred ground for Marines. It is where we earned the name, “Teufelhunden,” or “DevilDog.” I have twice completed the drive from Paris to Aisne-Marne. It is relatively uneventful, terrain-wise, and takes approximately 90 minutes.
The reported comments from the president, which he denies, are outrageous, abhorrent, and downright despicable. The reaction among veterans and military families across our nation has been one of outrage and disgust. A number of fellow Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have remarked that even in spite of his actions over the past three years, the president and our country have, with these comments, sunk to a new low.
To walk among these headstones is to walk through hallowed grounds. It is a solemn and, for some, a spiritual experience. To be there is to stand in what is now an impeccably maintained field in France, where pristinely polished white marble crosses, headstones, Stars of David, and crescent and stars are aligned perfectly; in some of the larger cemeteries, they seem to go on for miles.
When an American citizen visits, the cemetery superintendent or guide will take them on a tour through the grounds and share the stories, often from memory, of the young men and women who fought and fell there. Many were just 19 or 20. Some, like the 23 sets of brothers buried in Sicily-Rome American Cemetery in Italy or the sisters and nurses buried at Suresnes American Cemetery outside of Paris, lie with family. All gave what Lincoln called, “the last full measure of devotion” for a cause greater than themselves.
In that address, on a different battlefield, in Gettysburg, Lincoln made clear the sacred nature of American battlefields: “But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.”
As Americans, we must ask ourselves how we arrived at this dark moment. How could we as a nation have fallen from the leadership of Lincoln to a president who apparently calls our fallen service members losers and suckers?
As ABMC commissioners, we were greeted with gratitude and admiration during our visits to the cemeteries. In Netherlands American Cemetery, in Margraten, hundreds of thank-yous were bestowed by locals who came to pay their respects on Memorial Day. “You liberated our country,” many said, “and we adopted an American grave here. We care for your fallen sons and daughters as they were members of our own family.” In Normandy, townspeople still invite Americans into their homes for a meal as an honored guest. At Luxembourg American Cemetery, a man pointed to the American flag on my blazer and simply said, “Liberator.” A nearby woman trembled as she grasped my arms and said, “I remember my parents telling me how each night they would pray for the Americans to come.”
The eyes of the world now weep when looking upon us.
Maura C. Sullivan served as an assistant secretary at the US Department of Veterans Affairs and special assistant to the secretary of the Navy during the Obama administration. A resident of Portsmouth, N.H., she is an Iraq War veteran and a former Marine Corps officer. Follow her on Twitter @maurasullivan.