President Biden made his way on Sunday around a quiet room at Dover Air Force Base, a chamber filled with couches and chairs, with dignitaries and grieving families huddling together as the president came to speak to them privately, one family at a time.
Mark Schmitz had told a military officer the night before that he wasn’t much interested in speaking to a president he did not vote for, one whose execution of the Afghan pullout he disdains — and one he now blames for the death of his 20-year-old son Jared.
But overnight, sleeping in a nondescript hotel nearby, Schmitz changed his mind. So on that dreary morning he and his ex-wife were approached by Biden after he’d talked to all the other families. But by his own account, Schmitz glared hard at the president, so Biden spent more time looking at his ex-wife, repeatedly invoking his own son, Beau, who died six years ago.
Schmitz did not want to hear about Beau, he wanted to talk about Jared. Eventually, the parents took out a photo to show to Biden. “I said, ‘Don’t you ever forget that name. Don’t you ever forget that face. Don’t you ever forget the names of the other 12,’ ” Schmitz said. “ ‘And take some time to learn their stories.’ ”
Biden did not seem to like that, Schmitz recalled, and he bristled, offering a blunt response: “I do know their stories.”
It was a remarkable moment of two men thrown together by history. One was a president of the United States who prides himself on connecting with just about anyone in a moment of grief, but now coming face-to-face with grief that he himself had a role in creating. The other was a proud Marine father from Missouri, awoken a few nights before at 2:40 a.m. by a military officer at his door with news that nearly made him faint.
In what may be a sign of the country’s deep divide, Schmitz was not the only family member who wrestled long and hard with whether he even wanted to meet with Biden and who did not hesitate to offer criticism of the commander in chief.
The family of Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Rylee McCollum, too, had mixed emotions when it came time to decide whether to talk with the president. McCollum’s sisters and father joined his widow, Jiennah McCollum, on the trip to Dover — but when it came time to meet Biden, only Jiennah went in.
Afterward, one of the sisters, Roice McCollum, said Jiennah felt the president’s words were scripted and shallow, a conversation that lasted only a couple minutes in “total disregard to the loss of our Marine — our brother, son, husband and father.”
The White House declined to comment on Biden’s conversations with the grieving families, saying those exchanges should remain private. But last week, after news of the deaths emerged, the president publicly recalled how he and his wife, Jill, lost Beau, who served in Iraq before being diagnosed with an aggressive cancer.
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SOURCE: The Washington Post, Matt Viser