While some pundits have praised President Donald Trump’s recent speech to a joint session of Congress, in which he mentioned the death of Navy SEAL Chief William “Ryan” Owens, others have criticized Trump for using Owens’ wife Carryn as a “political prop.”
“Ryan’s legacy is etched into eternity,” Trump said on Tuesday, as cameras captured Carryn tearing up and mouthing the words, “I love you,” while looking up to the heavens.
It was perhaps the most emotional moment of Trump’s speech, and yet, also one of the most controversial, as a tweet from Brandon Friedman, a former Army officer who now runs a strategic communications firm, made clear.
“Media people in my feed viewed Trump’s Navy SEAL moment very differently from the veterans,” Friedman wrote, including a side-by-side view of journalists vs. veterans opinions on the matter.
Business Insider asked veterans for their thoughts on that moment, and many were happy to share their views (lightly edited for clarity), pro or con. But one thing became very clear: The opinions of veterans can vary greatly.
If Trump won’t take ownership of the decision that resulted in Owens’ death, “then he lacks what is essential to be a commander-in-chief leading a nation in its longest running war,” said a former Army intelligence analyst, who requested anonymity to avoid professional reprisal.
- Flickr/The U.S. Army
“I think that if Mrs. Owens left that speech with a bit of warmth in her heart and the genuine sentiments of a grateful nation then what political capital the President might have garnished by arranging such a moment is immaterial,” the analyst said.
“It is immaterial because that capital is perishable, whereas that moment, that sentiment towards Mrs. Owens – there will be days when that might be what carries her through and that’s something she clearly deserves.
As we evaluate how the President carries himself and represents the office, we are compelled to look a bit farther at how he has interacted and communicated with the father of our fallen brother,” the soldier added, mentioning the father of Ryan Owens, who has said the Trump administration was “hiding behind” his son’s death.
“If Trump can’t eat a spoon of humble pie and do whatever he has to do to extend the olive branch to that man – then he has failed to represent the office of the President of the United States with the grace and honor that the office demands,” the analyst said.
“President Trump gave the order which resulted in the death of that man’s son. If he won’t own that, then he lacks what is essential to be a commander-in-chief leading a nation in its longest running war.”
Carryn Owens was used as a “political prop,” said Francisco Miranda, a retired Army major who deployed three times to the Middle East.
- US Marine Corps
“The buck stops at the president – the commander-in-chief,” Miranda told Business Insider.
“He used Mrs. Owen as a political prop and it is disgusting. I lost my cousin (we grew up and joined the Army together), Sgt. 1st Class Jeffrey Rada Morales in 2008 and his widow still mourns his loss.”
“Trump’s words on Ryan moved me,” said Eric Ober, a veteran of the Army who served for six years.
- Wikimedia Commons
“Trump highlighted the night with acknowledging his legacy. Veterans by and large have felt that we have been used by the DC elite, and that what we have done only matters as much as it signals to the objectives and narratives of that elite,” Ober told Business Insider.
“Yesterday was different. To me it was about bringing out the humanity in DC that we thought had died. We usually see D.C. as a cold and hardened machine. The media is at fault for that – we grow up hearing these talking heads on television, and they use a tone that is more machine than human. They craft perception. Yesterday’s acknowledgement by Trump was sincere.”
“There was a certain tinge of intimacy created between the President and Americans, in that speech … I feel proud again.”
“I felt that the president’s comments were genuine and that he was truly honoring the sacrifices made by the Owens,” said Jeff Cleland, a medically-retired infantry Marine corporal who served in Iraq.
- Courtesy of Jeff Cleland
“Honoring Americans has been a tradition for years in this type of format and I do not think this was a ploy to gain ratings,” he added.
Cleland, who left the Corps in 2008 due to combat injuries he sustained in Fallujah, now serves as the manager of the military service initiative at the President George W. Bush Center.
The tradition, as he pointed out, is not unique to Trump. Presidents Obama, Bush, and many others have often called out service-members or their families during major speeches.
“I found what went on last night to be repellent,” said Ed Beck, a Post-9/11 Marine veteran who served in Iraq.
- Courtesy of Ed Beck
“Carryn Owens deserves nothing but compassion, regardless of whatever her own politics may be. But Trump inviting her, and wrapping himself in her and her deceased husband turned my stomach,” Beck told Business Insider.
“It was a craven political act – an obvious attempt to wave the bloody shirt and beat back questions surrounding the raid itself – and of Trump’s buck-passing that morning,” he added, mentioning Trump’s suggestion that former President Obama was partially at fault for Owens’ death.
“It was beyond shameless to pull this stunt, after Trump unleashed his racist attack against the Khans last summer,” Beck said. “How anyone could see last night as anything other than a demagogue exploiting the dead and the grieving is beyond me.”
“The widow of a fallen Navy SEAL was used to score political points,” said Dr. James Joyner, a professor at the Marine Corps’ Command & Staff College and Army veteran who served in the Gulf War.
- US Marine Corps
“I understand why she would want to be there to have her husband honored. And it’s quite possible that she felt honored and not exploited. Regardless, the clear intent here was to use emotion to drown out legitimate criticisms of the way the new administration approved a military operation that went tragically wrong,” Joyner wrote on his blog, Outside the Beltway.
“I found it simply shameful. The off-the-cuff quip (at least, it was not in the prepared remarks) about setting a record with the length of the applause added to the tackiness.”
Joyner was referring to Trump’s remark after the standing ovation toward Mrs. Owens from members of Congress, in which he told her, “and Ryan is looking down right now, you know that. And he’s very happy, because I think he just broke a record.”
“Not once has he acknowledged that his decision — right or wrong — sent Ryan to his death,” a former Marine communications specialist told Business Insider, on condition of anonymity for fear of professional reprisal. “Something every President has to come to terms with.”
- US Marine Corps
The Marine made clear that it was important to separate Trump using Owen’s widow “as a prop” from any criticism of her actions.
“She did nothing wrong,” he said. “Not many people will turn down an invitation to be a special guest of President at an address to Congress.”
“Military spouses of slain service members have always been used as props. Trump is no different in that regard. However, Trump does separate himself from other presidents in many ways,” the Marine said, listing then-candidate Trump’s attack on a Gold Star family, attacking Sen. John McCain over being captured in Vietnam, and his delay so far in presenting a new plan for defeating ISIS.
“Instead of taking the blame for Ryan’s death, hours before the speech, he blaimed the loss on his generals. Not once has he acknowledged that his decision – right or wrong – sent Ryan to his death. Something every President has to come to terms with,” the Marine said.
“It was fine and clearly touching for Mrs. Owens which is important,” said Scott Radcliffe, a former Army officer who served twice in Iraq. “But put into context with the President’s past actions … it made me a little uncomfortable.”
- Courtesy of Scott Radcliffe
“In a vacuum, it was fine and clearly touching for Mrs. Owens which is important, but put into context with the president’s past actions of using vets and members of the military to deflect attention – such as he did in Iowa when instead of participating in the GOP debate he held a ‘fundraiser’ for vets organizations only to have to be shamed into actually giving the money to vets organizations – as well as how they’ve approached the response to this mission in particular,” Radcliffe told Business Insider.
“It made me a little uncomfortable,” he said.
Radcliffe mentioned the administration’s attack on Sen. John McCain and others, who have questioned the raid mission. White House spokesman Sean Spicer said the criticism was a “disservice to the life of Chief Ryan Owens” that deserved an apology.
Since then, Owens’ father has questioned the raid, and he refused to meet with Trump when the SEAL’s body was returned to the United States.
“I thought it was very emotional and touching to see the nation support her,” Joe Frommling, a former Marine infantry squad leader who served in Afghanistan, told Business Insider.
- Courtesy of Joe Frommling
“It’s something that I think we have lost over the past couple years,” Frommling said.
“I remember in 2012 we lost a guy in my platoon on Feb 10 – that day was also around the time Whitney Houston died. Both Lance Cpl. Osbrany Montes De Oca and Whitney Houston were from New Jersey. You didn’t hear a peep of him dying, but the flag was at half-mast and the world grieved a drug addict dying in a bathtub,” he added, mentioning the controversial decision by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to lower the flag in an honor of the famed singer.
“I think there’s a fine line between celebrating someone’s life like they did Owens last night and being overly gloating,” Frommling said. “I think Trump skirted that line last night but at least someone’s sacrifice was recognized.”
“I’m sickened. POTUS only did this because he had bad press regarding the raid,” said a currently serving Army officer, speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid professional reprisal.
- Getty Images/Joe Raedle
“We saw in the campaign how he feels about Gold Star families who disagree with him,” the officer, who served in Afghanistan, told Business Insider, mentioning Trump’s attack on the family of Capt. Humayan Khan, a soldier who died during the Iraq War.
“The way that politicians continue to use veterans and fallen service members as political props makes me sometimes wonder why I even signed up to do this.”
“Yes, it was exploitative, but that certainly is not limited to Republicans,” one currently-serving military officer told BuzzFeed News’ Nancy Youssef.