Why we should give Trump a break on this one…
Callous, insensitive and tactless. All terms used by the media to label President Trump’s recent call to Natasha De Alencar, whose husband Army Staff Sgt. Mark De Alencar, was killed in a firefight on April 8.
I’m no fan of Trump. I find him, bullish, untrustworthy and slippery. I don’t like the way he plays to the crowd. He resembles a nineteenth century travelling salesmen rather than a President, pedalling poisonous snake oil as some ‘cure all’ concoction for what ails American society.
But here’s the rub. Having served as soldier and as both a Military Casualty Notification and Reporting Officer — the former informs the family of the death, the latter supports the family for a period after the death — I thought I’d be the better man, bury my views, and come to his defence over the media coverage of his recent call to Staff Sgt. Mark De Alencar’s widow, Natasha.
Whether presidents do or do not ring up the families of deceased servicemen and women is a personal choice. Let me explain why. My experience is that it is difficult to comfort a family with just words, especially during the early period of mourning. Words can be comforting, but they can also sound hollow and duty bound. I’ve heard and seen slick, polished and well scripted interactions with these families, which despite being professional and well rehearsed, fail to address the most important aspect of reaching out to the family at this time — to provide comfort, making them feel that they are not alone in their grief.
It’s challenging. A telephone call does not give us the opportunity to use the one tool that we have evolved over millennia to comfort our fellow human beings — our body language. A delicate touch on the shoulder, a smile, a warm hug, a hand held, a forehead kissed; all are slight but important gestures that can convey genuine sympathy and comfort. Words, delivered through a call — no matter how eloquent — will always struggle to achieve this.
I have no doubt that Presidents past and present, know and understand this, and why it should be their personal choice. For me, Trump took a position that he wished to privately connect and say something. I applaud him for this. But, had he decided not to do the call then i would equally understand why.
Comforting families during this time, is often about validating to the family that their loved ones didn’t die in vain, that their sacrifice made a difference, that they died doing what they loved, surrounded by friends. On listening to the call, Trump does this. At times he ‘fluffs’ his words - generating media attention in the process - but his inarticulateness and awkwardness is not a crime, he sounds sincere, you can ‘feel’ it on the call and he connects well with Mrs De Alencar, who by the way sounds like a dignified, strong and caring woman.
He also does something important on the call, he talks about Mrs De Alencar’s children. The children of deceased servicemen and women are their route to immortality, the light which will eventually eat away at the current darkness the family find themselves in. By discussing Staff Sgt. Mark De Alencar’s children he made an important parent to parent connection with the family.
His repeated invites to the White House also sounded warm and genuine, rather than predictable and dutiful. I have a feeling that if any family of a deceased serviceman and woman turned up at his door, then — like many Presidents before him — he would be welcoming and respectful.
The most challenging of human endeavours is to provide comfort to someone who has recently lost a loved one. Unfortunately as humans we don’t always get it right every time. In my experience you will always question whether you have said or done the right thing. I suspect Mr Trump would have gone through his own reflective process as soon as he put down the phone, we all do. I think the American President genuinely wanted to comfort, and to criticise him for this is unwarranted.
Perhaps, if we were going to vilify anyone, then it should be the individual politician who decided to discuss this very private and sensitive conversation with the media, without consultation with either the President or Mrs De Alencar, and clearly for political advantage. But that’s another story….
As footnote i’d like to offer my condolences to Staff Sgt. Mark De Alencar’s family. From what i have read and heard Mrs De Alencar, your husband was a true hero, in every sense of the word.