'Most Americans Don't Know': What Happens When an American Fighter Dies Abroad

Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) personnel prepare to transport a casket during a disinterment ceremony at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, Honolulu, Hawaii, June 12, 2017. (Credit: Petty Officer 2nd Class Seth Coulter via DVIDS)

Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) personnel prepare to transport a casket during a disinterment ceremony at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, Honolulu, Hawaii, June 12, 2017. (Credit: Petty Officer 2nd Class Seth Coulter via DVIDS)

In an emotional statement delivered from the White House briefing room Thursday, President Donald Trump's chief of staff, Gen. John Kelly (ret.), defended his boss's handling of condolence calls to the family members of fallen American service members. 

As part of his remarks, Kelly, who lost his own son in combat in Afghanistan in 2010, told reporters what happens when an American who signed up to defend their country dies far away from home:

Most Americans don’t know what happens when we lose one of [our] soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, our Coast Guardsmen in combat. So let me tell you what happens:

Their buddies wrap them up in whatever passes as a shroud, puts them on a helicopter as a routine, and sends them home. Their first stop along the way is when 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, and then puts them on another airplane linked up with a casualty officer escort that takes them home.

...So that’s the process. 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 then he knocks on the door; typically a mom and dad will answer, a wife. And if there is a wife, this is happening in two different places; if the parents are divorced, three different places. And the casualty officer proceeds to break the heart of a family member and stays with that family until -- well, for a long, long time, even after the internment. So that’s what happens.

Who are these young men and women? They are the best 1 percent this country produces. Most of you, as Americans, don’t know them. Many of you don’t know anyone who knows any one of them. But they are the very best this country produces, and they volunteer to protect our country when there’s nothing in our country anymore that seems to suggest that selfless service to the nation is not only appropriate, but required. But that’s all right.

Who writes letters to the families? Typically, the company commander -- in my case, as a Marine -- the company commander, battalion commander, regimental commander, division commander, Secretary of Defense, typically the service chief, commandant of the Marine Corps, and the President typically writes a letter.

Typically, the only phone calls a family receives are the most important phone calls they could imagine, and that is from their buddies. In my case, 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.

And yeah, the letters count, to a degree, but there’s not much that really can take the edge off what a family member is going through.

Read Kelly's full remarks here. Here's a map of where every U.S. service member has perished abroad since Trump took office, based on Department of Defense information. And below that is the Pentagon's latest casualty count, stretching back more than a decade.

DOD_casualty_count_171019.jpg

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