A CNN correspondent whose husband is on his sixth deployment anchors a show and struggles to keep it together as the White House briefing turns to military deaths
Brianna Keilar watches and tweets about the movie "Taking Chance" and encounters a critic on Twitter
Correction: An earlier version of this article cited 2011 as the year 1st Lt. Robert Kelly died. It was 2010.
It’s Saturday afternoon and I’m mid-movie on the couch when suddenly I’m sucked into a Twitter wormhole.
I’m watching “Taking Chance,” a film about Pfc. Chance Phelps, a Marine killed in 2004 defending a convoy near Ramadi. The movie follows the transport of his body from Iraq to Wyoming, and is based on the account of Lt. Col. Michael Strobl, the Marine who escorted Phelps home.
The entire movie is somber, punctuated by particularly heart-wrenching scenes, including one where Strobl, played by Kevin Bacon, is on the tarmac at the Minneapolis airport as he oversees the transport of Phelps’s remains. He encounters an Army sergeant. Like Strobl, the sergeant is accompanying the remains of another service member killed in action. He seems particularly affected as he waits for the body to be taken off an airplane. Suddenly Strobl seems to understand.
“Are you related to the deceased, son?”
“Yes, sir,” the sergeant responds. “He’s my brother.”
It’s a crushing moment.
As the two men salute the casket while it’s slid into a hearse, my iPhone dings and lights up.
I pause the movie. I move to turn the ringer off and then I see a tweet on the screen.
“Crooked Hillary Clinton spent hundreds of millions of dollars more on Presidential Election than I did. Facebook was on her side, not mine!” President Trump has tweeted.
The last few days the news has been dominated by a controversy over Trump’s call to Myeshia Johnson, a Gold Star widow. She is just 24 years old and pregnant with her third child, mourning her husband, Army Sgt. La David Johnson, who was killed in an ISIS ambush in Niger.
The President has volleyed with Congresswoman Frederica Wilson, a longtime family friend of Sgt. Johnson’s, who was present on the call, over whether he was insensitive to Mrs. Johnson.
Moments of dignity and solemnity have been interrupted over and over by politics and vitriol and today, it seems, is no different.
I turn the television off and retweet the President’s tweet, commenting, “As I’m watching ‘Taking Chance’ this tweet alerts on my phone. And that about sums up this week for me.”
A few minutes later a man tweets at me: “It’s telling that you are only now watching this. Been out for years. More evidence U and other media R in a bubble & don’t know real people.”
I just can’t let it go.
“My husband is on his sixth deployment right now. You don’t know anything about me,” I reply.
John Kelly in the White House briefing room
The Twitter exchange followed a turbulent week. On Thursday afternoon, I was anchoring on CNN when John Kelly, the White House chief of staff and a retired four-star Marine general, stepped behind the podium of the White House briefing room.
We have never heard from Kelly like this, speaking as a Gold Star father while television networks take his remarks live. Kelly lost his son, Robert, in 2010 when he stepped on a land mine in southern Afghanistan.
Kelly describes the journey of a service member’s remains, the journey his son would have taken, after being killed in action.
“Their first stop along the way is when they’re packed in ice, typically at the airhead,” Kelly says to a hushed White House press corps. “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.”
As I listen to Kelly all I can picture is my husband’s body, packed in ice. I will it to stop. I can’t. I am arrested by this horrific looping video image in my mind and I can’t control the tears. I ask the floor director for tissues. I listen to Kelly hoping that he will talk for several more minutes and I will have time to compose myself so I can speak evenly when I bring my panel in to discuss Kelly’s comments.
My husband is an Army Special Forces officer who is used to deploying, but this is my first time doing one of these. We got married last December. When we began dating, he was assigned to a policy job in Washington, wearing a suit every day and working in an office. I had hoped he might get another desk job for his new billet this summer, a thought that simultaneously filled me with relief and disappointment. He saw me through my constant travels as a campaign correspondent in 2016 and grieved the loss of my mom with me after she died unexpectedly in the middle of the campaign cycle, and it brought us closer. While I want him safely at home, deployments have been such an important and challenging part of his life for the last two decades and without going through one, I may never truly understand what he’s sacrificed.
One of the reasons my husband and I connect is our shared value of service. It’s why he went off to West Point at age 17 and never looked back. It’s why I got into journalism in college. We have our differences, for sure – I’m in the relatively safe profession of political reporting and he has chosen a career with a significant risk of bodily injury and death – but we have compatible senses of duty and responsibility.
In the end, duty and responsibility call him. There is no Washington desk job and here we are – he is deployed as I sit on a television set in front of countless lights. And for this moment, as I listen to John Kelly describe my worst fear, I am not a news person at all. I am only a military wife trying not to lose it in front of a panel of my colleagues and experts and our entire floor crew.
’I’m proud of u’
After a few minutes Kelly moves on to criticize Rep. Wilson and I feel myself regain control of my emotions. Thinking about politics helps me compartmentalize.
I discuss Kelly’s remarks with David Chalian, Gloria Borger, John Kirby – a retired Navy rear admiral and Steve Warren – a retired Army colonel. We had been expecting a White House briefing full of the usual fireworks with press secretary Sarah Sanders and instead we are analyzing an extraordinary appearance by Trump’s chief of staff.
As the clock ticks toward 4 o’clock I sign off and toss to Jake Tapper. I untether myself from my microphone and earpiece and head straight for my office. Like a prayer being answered, my husband texts me.
I close the door to my office and Skype with him. He is unable to speak to me without disrupting other people sleeping around him so I talk while he listens on headphones and he texts me.
I tell him I’ve missed him a lot the last couple days and about what I covered today and how I had barely held it together.
“I’m proud of u,” he types as I sob.
I tell him about Kelly’s comments about how the remains of service members are returned home and he texts me about the movie, “Taking Chance.”
I tell him Kelly actually told the press corps they should watch that very film.
“It was hard for me to watch,” he types. I can’t even imagine.
And then we move onto other things. We talk about my stepson, who I am caring for in my husband’s absence. I tell my husband how our beloved toddler has unfortunately learned how to take his diaper off so the pajama sack he’s been sleeping in since infancy is no more. We have graduated to footie pajamas and there’s no turning back. I can tell he is bummed out from missing even this small change while he’s gone.
He’s fading and needs sleep so we say goodbye.
That is what brings me to this Saturday afternoon, dividing my time between putting together a package to send my husband, watching “Taking Chance,” and now, firing back at someone on Twitter.
My reply is retweeted and commented on thousands of times in the next few days, including by a number of people who tell me they are Gold Star families or who have loved ones serving or who have served in the military.
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But what surprises me most is the response I receive from the man who initially insulted me and other members of the media. I imagine the deluge of tweets he received must have come as an unexpected and unpleasant surprise.
“Sometimes twitter confirms 2nd thoughts about a tweet like this time. I apologize w/o qualification 4 my ill informed, mean snarky tweet,” he writes.
I thank him. If a heartfelt apology on Twitter isn’t enough to restore some small semblance of faith in humanity, I don’t know what is.