WASHINGTON — President Trump’s treatment of families of fallen troops “sickens” former Defense secretary Chuck Hagel, who labeled his recent calls and other statements “beneath the dignity of the presidency.”

Hagel, in an interview with USA TODAY, reacted to Trump’s call to a widow of a soldier killed in Niger, his promise to the father of another fallen solider to write a $25,000 check and his reference to John Kelly, his chief of staff, and his son who was killed in action in Afghanistan. Trump also swiped at former President Barack Obama, suggesting, inaccurately, that he hadn’t placed calls to the kin of troops killed in action.

Former Defense secretary Chuck Hagel said more needed to be done with the problem of sexual harassment in the military.

“I’m offended by the way he’s handled it,” said Hagel, who served as Defense secretary under Obama. Hagel, a decorated veteran of the Vietnam War, was also a Republican senator from Nebraska. “You just don’t use the families of the fallen to score political points, especially to take jabs at your predecessor. I’m very unhappy about this,” he said.

The issue erupted after Trump called the widow of Army Sgt. La David Johnson who died in the ambush Oct. 4 along with three other soldiers. Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., said Trump had been disrespectful in the call, quoting the president as saying, “I guess he knew what he signed up for, but I guess it still hurt.”

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Trump accused Wilson of lying, saying he had proof, which the White House later acknowledged did not exist. Wilson has stood by her account of the call. 

Kelly defended Trump during an appearance in the White House briefing room on Thursday, saying he was "stunned" by Wilson's comments. He blamed Wilson, not Trump, for politicizing the issue. Kelly spent an hour at Arlington National Cemetery to compose himself, he said.

Hagel made some condolence calls himself, although he said he deferred to the White House where Obama made several calls. Instead, Hagel said he wrote letters to the families of fallen troops, taking time to learn a bit about each of those killed. Doing so, Hagel said, was a “sacred duty.”

“I wrote those myself,” Hagel said. “I wanted to know something about each of the troops.”

Hagel found it especially troubling, he said, that Trump exploited Kelly, a retired four-star Marine general who lost his son, Robert, a Marine lieutenant, in 2010. The White House stated that Obama did not call Kelly. Kelly and his wife did attend a reception for families of fallen troops, and was seated with then-First Lady Michelle Obama. 

“Particularly as commander-in-chief to do this to score political points,” Hagel said. “This is one issue in which all Americans should be able to come together. There should be complete unity.”

Kelly did not receive a call from Obama, he said, but indicated that he did not expect one. 

"The president's choice"

While Hagel took umbrage at Trump’s response, the father of a soldier killed in 2006 in Iraq, said he didn’t receive a call from then-President George W. Bush, nor did he expect it. Steve Castner, 71 of Cedarburg, Wis., said getting troops better equipment — armored vehicles, for instance, that may have saved his son Stephen’s life — was more important than a condolence call.

Army Spc. Stephen Castner, 27, died July 24, 2006, when a roadside bomb tore apart his Humvee in Iraq. 

“Expressions of condolences in a generalized way, taking a trip to Arlington National Cemetery or a few select calls,” Castner said. “That’s all the president’s choice. You can’t expect him to drop everything and place condolence calls to everybody. That’s the bottom line as far as I’m concerned.”

What mattered far more to Castner, he said, was the response of Wisconsin’s governor and National Guard and Pentagon officials who began fielding vehicles with better armor to Guard units protecting convoys.

“It was a constructive and necessary step,” Castner said.

Eventually, because of Stephen Castner’s death and those of hundreds more troops, the Pentagon embarked on a $45 billion program to replace every Humvee with Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) trucks. 

Those vehicles became the military’s top priority under then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates who has credited them with saving the lives and limbs of thousands of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A Cougar MRAP vehicle