Bill Richardson: Dishonoring the dead
Welcome to Memorial Day 2007. Here’s a lesson in How Not To Honor a Fallen Soldier 101. Don’t do what Democratic presidential candidate Bill Richardson did to fallen Marine Lance Corporal Aaron Austin:
Exploit his death on the campaign trail.
Insult his mother by claiming she talked about money with you at his memorial service, which she vehemently refutes–and then refuse to apologize.
Here’s the transcript from Meet The Press yesterday. Geez:
MR. RUSSERT: Let me ask you about a controversy that has arisen from some speech you’ve been giving on the stump, particularly in New Hampshire, regarding a mother from New Mexico. Here’s the headline from the Associated Press: “Mother of fallen Marine says Richardson misrepresented conversation with her.”
“On the campaign trail, presidential hopeful Bill Richardson tells a moving story about a New Mexico Marine killed in Iraq and his mom. But is it true?
“Three years ago, Richardson attended a memorial service for Lance Corporal Aaron Austin, 21, who died in April” of “2004. As he campaigns for the Democratic nomination, the New Mexico governor often recounts an emotional conversation with Austin’s mother, saying she thanked him for the federal death benefits she had received and even showed him the government check.
“In speeches in New Hampshire, Richardson has gotten Austin’s name wrong at least once,” “age wrong at least twice. He also has called Austin the first New Mexico soldier killed in Iraq–instead of the third.
“But that’s not what bothers the Marine’s mother, De’on Miller, of Lovington, New Mexico, who says the conversation about money never took place. ‘I don’t know a person rich or poor that would be told that” her “only living child has been killed, and you’re going to strike up a money conversation? Bill Richardson needs to stop pushing this lie. Aaron’s name had better not be used again in any way. Not mine either. A full written apology is due me for this.'” Will you apologize to her?
GOV. RICHARDSON: Tim, she–we have different recollections. That family is heroic, that young man is heroic. But let me tell you what that–my attending that ceremony caused. It inspired me to go to the New Mexico legislature and propose a $250,000 death benefit–life insurance–for every National Guardsman in New Mexico. It’s now $400,000. It passed. I made it happen. And then 30 other states–I went to the National Governors Association, and we pushed this–30 other states have made this happen. And the federal death benefit has gone up.
Now, I, I fully respect that family. We have different recollections. But that’s where I learned, at that ceremony, that the death benefit for our soldiers was $11,000. And look, Tim, I am not going to–there is nobody that has done more for veterans, any governor, I believe, than I have. No state income tax for enlisted people. I was just in North Korea two months ago, and I brought back–I’ve been working on this for years–the remains of six Americans from the Korean War. All kinds of initiatives, such as this life insurance policy that has been…
MR. RUSSERT: But if it troubles her, out of respect for Mrs. Miller and her son Aaron Austin, will you stop using his name and her name?
GOV. RICHARDSON: Yes, I will. I will do that. But we just have different recollections, Tim, and–but, but that family is honorable. I attended that service. I was really moved. You know, I call as many of the mothers of New Mexico soldiers that’ve been killed. But no one will ever question my commitment to help our veterans. I was in North Korea. I rescued–I helped rescue, helped push forward the release of–many years ago–of, of an American helicopter pilot. So I believe very strongly that we have to stand up for our veterans when they come back, coming back PTSD, they’re not getting the help that they deserve.
MR. RUSSERT: But if Mrs. Miller feels used, you would apologize for it.
GOV. RICHARDSON: Well, Tim, I–that’s where I learned about this death benefit. There was an individual there that saw a piece of paper being given to me. I, I don’t want to get into this. I want this to–I respect that woman. I will not mention it again.
MR. RUSSERT: And you’re sorry?
GOV. RICHARDSON: Well, I’m sorry for the way she feels, but I believe I acted honorably. Look at the result. The result was $400,000 life insurance for New Mexico National Guardsmen that served and then 30 states that covered all their veterans. They followed New Mexico’s lead. They followed my lead. The federal death benefit, which was shameful, $11,000, $12,000 is now significantly higher.
Talk about shameful. Couldn’t he just apologize and shut up already? Why is Cindy Sheehan the only mother who gets “absolute moral authority?”
Not “Sean Austin,” as the boneheaded Gov. Richardson called him.
Lance Cpl. Aaron Austin.
Lance Cpl. Aaron Austin died in Fallujah repelling an attack. For his actions, he was awarded the Silver Star posthumously, the award will go to his parents.
On the last night of his life, Lance Cpl. Aaron Austin joined a prayer session with other Marines hunkered down in a bullet-riddled neighborhood in Fallouja, Iraq. Austin, a 21-year-old machine-gunner, asked God for protection not for himself but for his fellow Marines of Echo Company of the 2nd Battalion, 1st Regiment, 1st Marine Division, based at Camp Pendleton.
The next morning, insurgents attacked from three directions, firing thousands of rounds from AK-47s and other firearms and hurling dozens of grenades. With the Marines in danger of being overrun, Austin exposed himself to enemy fire in order to throw a grenade at their position 20 meters away. The grenade helped repel the attack, but Austin was mortally wounded.
The Marines were searching buildings in the war-torn Jolan neighborhood when they came under attack in one of the bloodiest clashes between the U.S. military and insurgents that spring.
Austin helped evacuate the wounded and led other Marines onto a roof to operate a machine gun. When the insurgents kept advancing, he took a grenade from his vest and moved into the open for a better throwing position.
“Several enemy bullets struck Lance Cpl. Austin in the chest,” said the official Marine Corps account. “Undaunted by his injury and with heroic effort, he threw his hand grenade at the enemy on the adjacent rooftop.”
The grenade hit the bull’s-eye and forced the insurgents to halt their attack.
When the battle was over, Marines erected a makeshift memorial to Austin in one of the buildings they had fought to defend.
Sunray, Texas native Lance Corporal Aaron Austin served with Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division. On April 26, 2004 terrorists firing AK–47s, other small arms and hurling grenades, attacked his company’s position in Fallujah from three sides. The situation was grim. The Marines were in danger of being overrun. L/Cpl Austin reacted by first helping evacuate wounded then leading fellow Marines onto a rooftop to set up a machine gun position. The terrorists continued to advance. With no regard for his safety L/Cpl Austin moved to an exposed position to throw a grenade and, as the official Marine account states, ‘several enemy bullets struck him in the chest. Undaunted by his injuries and with heroic effort, he threw his hand grenade at the enemy on the adjacent rooftop.’ It hit its target and the terrorist attack was halted. Lance Corporal Aaron Austin was later awarded a posthumous Silver Star for gallantry in action on that heroic day in April.
L/Cpl Austin’s mom blogs here “in Loving Memory to LCpl. Aaron C. Austin, USMC KIA Fallujah, Iraq on April 26, 2004. Rock on.”
From an April 2004 article reacting to his death:
“Aaron died doing something he believed in. He just wanted to go out and kick butt. I love what he was doing out there,” she said. “I appreciate what those soldiers stand for,” she added.
Someone left this famous verse by Wallace Stevens at a tribute site for Lance Corporal Austin:
The shadows of his fellows ring him round,
In the high night, the summer breathes for them
Its fragrance, a heavy somnolence, and for him,
For the soldier of time, it breathes a summer sleep,
In which his wound is good because life was.
No part of him was ever part of death.
R.I.P., Lance Corporal Austin, and God bless all our fallen heroes today and every day.
Related: Must-read from Blackfive…The Fallen Lion of Fallujah, Maj. Doug Zembiec. He was killed in action leading a raid on insurgents in Baghdad last week.
Maj. Zembiec was the unit commander in Fallujah when Lance Corporal Austin was killed. Here’s what he wrote to Lance Corporal Austin’s mother:
“Your son was killed in action today. Despite intense enemy machine gun and rocket propelled grenade fire, your son fought like a lion. He remained in his fighting position until all his wounded comrades could be evacuated from the rooftop they were defending. It was during his courageous defense of his comrades that Aaron was hit by enemy fire…. With the exception of the Marines on Security, every man in the company attended the service. Aaron was respected and admired by every Marine in his company. His death brought tears to my eyes, tears that fell in front of my Marines. I am unashamed of that fact.”
– Douglas Zembiec, [then] Captain, U.S. Marine Corps, writing to the mother of Aaron C. Austin, included in Operation Homecoming by Andrew Carroll
From the LA Times coverage of Maj. Zembiec’s funeral at Arlington National Cemetery on May 17:
“We can dispute the politics of any war — Iraq, Afghanistan or any others,” said Bing West, author of two books about combat Marines in Iraq, “but we cannot dispute our need for warriors. Doug was our guardian.”
Sgt. Maj. William Skiles, who fought beside Zembiec at Fallouja, said he inspired great loyalty among his troops. “An entire company of Marines would trade places with him right now,” Skiles said from Camp Pendleton. “They would put down their lives for him.”
Zembiec was a star wrestler at the U.S. Naval Academy, where he graduated in 1995. While attending the academy, he decided the Marine Corps offered more challenge than the Navy. “I wanted to be a defender, defending my country,” he said.
After Fallouja, Zembiec was promoted to major and given a desk job at the Pentagon. Restive, he volunteered to fight in Afghanistan. More recently, he returned to Iraq.
During the eulogy, his best friend Eric Kapitulik read from notebooks that Zembiec had kept:
“Be a man of principle. Fight for what you believe in. Keep your word. Live with integrity. Be brave. Believe in something bigger than yourself. Serve your country. Teach. Mentor. Give something back to society. Lead from the front. Conquer your fears,” Kapitulik read.
“Be a good friend. Be humble but be self-confident. Appreciate your friends and family. Be a leader and not a follower. Be valorous on the field of battle and take responsibility for your actions,” Kapitulik continued.
Maj. Zembiec is survived by his wife and 1-year-old daughter. The family has asked that memorial contributions be sent to the Maj. Douglas A. Zembiec Scholarship, MC-LEF c/o William Venezia, MC-LEF Office, 10 Rockefeller Plaza, Suite 1007, New York, NY 10020.
More: An account of Maj. Zembiec’s funeral over at Op-For.
Update: Don’t forget to pause today at 3pm for the national moment of remembrance. Click to play: