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President Joe 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.
“We have some sense, like many of you do, what the families of these brave heroes are feeling today,” Biden said. “You get this feeling like you’re being sucked into a black hole in the middle of your chest. There’s no way out. My heart aches for you.”
Despite Schmitz’s disenchantment with Biden, one part of the encounter did strike him favorably. The president at one point pulled out the card he keeps in his breast pocket showing the number of American service members who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It’s something Biden has talked about for years, but now the card had an addition that reflected the new toll that Biden was responsible for. “At the end of it, it had ‘Plus 13,’ ” Schmitz said. “I know it’s just a number, but it was a simple reflective thing that he looks at. I’ll give him kudos there.”
In recounting the meeting, Schmitz said he did not want to make it political. His own emotions at times appeared contradictory and changing. He didn’t want to meet with Biden, and then he did. He didn’t intend to shake his hand, and then he did. He agrees with Biden on the need to withdraw, but believes that he botched the way it should have been done.
And while he hardened when Biden entered the room, he said he also understood how difficult it must have been for the president to take that step.
“It had to be one of the hardest things he’s ever had to do,” Schmitz said. “You make some calls, here’s the aftereffect. It’s got to be difficult. I’m not saying it was easy at all. But you can’t run up and hug someone as if you had nothing to do with it. It’s not going to work that way when you’re commander in chief.”
Biden did not address the group collectively with prepared comments, instead making his way around the room for more private moments with each individual family. And the reactions varied widely; some families opted not to meet with Biden at all, while others accepted hugs from him.
Biden for years has brought up his life story and how it has been shaped by tragedy. His wife and young daughter died in a car crash in 1972. He suffered from brain aneurysms in 1988 that were so significant that a priest came to read him his last rites.
And Beau died of brain cancer in 2015. Biden has often talked of Beau’s service in the Delaware National Guard – and his deployment to Iraq – as a way to convey his empathy with the worry that faces military families. He has at times wondered aloud whether Beau’s exposure to burn pits while in Iraq was the reason he developed brain cancer.
But his life experiences, which so often have provided the connective tissue to help him reach those immersed in grief, at times seemed to fall flat on this occasion. For the first time, Biden was meeting with relatives some of whom held him responsible for the death of their loved ones.
And they did not necessarily view Biden’s suffering as directly relevant to theirs.
“When he just kept talking about his son so much it was just – my interest was lost in that. I was more focused on my own son than what happened with him and his son,” Schmitz said. “I’m not trying to insult the president, but it just didn’t seem that appropriate to spend that much time on his own son.”
“I think it was all him trying to say he understands grief,” Schmitz added. “But when you’re the one responsible for ultimately the way things went down, you kind of feel like that person should own it a little bit more. Our son is now gone. Because of a direct decision or game plan – or lack thereof – that he put in place.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki declined to comment Monday on Biden’s interactions with the family members.
“While his son did not lose his life directly in combat as they did – or directly at the hands of a terrorist, as these families did that they’re mourning – he knows . . . firsthand that there’s nothing you can say, nothing you can convey, to ease the pain and to ease what all of these families are going through,” she said.
“It is certainly the right of any individual who met with the president yesterday to speak publicly about their experience,” Psaki added. “But I’m not going to speak about the president’s experience beyond what I’ve said already.”
Some of the grieving relatives felt a need to interact directly with the president after losing their loved one, including Jiennah McCollum, who married Rylee McCollum just six months ago and is due to give birth to the couple’s child next month.
“Gigi wanted to look him in the eye and hear him,” McCollum’s sister Roice said in a text message to The Washington Post, using Jiennah’s nickname.
Roice recounted that Jiennah left disappointed. The president, she said, kept checking his watch and bringing up Beau.
And her feelings appeared to be influenced by her overall views of Biden’s politics and performance as president.
“He cannot possibly understand,” Roice said. “My dad and I did not want to speak to him. You cannot kneel on our flag and pretend you care about our troops. You can’t f— up as bad as he did and say you’re sorry. This did not need to happen, and every life is on his hands. The thousands of Afghans who will suffer and be tortured is a direct result of his incompetence.”
Schmitz did not react as harshly, but he said that he was consoled far more by the words of military leaders who came up to him on Sunday to offer their condolences than by anything Biden said.
As the families left the building following their encounter with Biden, solemnly watching the bodies of their loved ones come off the C-17 plane, the emotions were still raw.
Schmitz said he grew agitated every time he saw Biden check his watch. And at the end, there was another outburst of emotion.
As the families began loading back onto their bus, one woman grew emotional and began screaming in Biden’s direction across the tarmac.
“She said, ‘I hope you burn in hell! That was my brother!’ ” Schmitz recounted.
“I can’t fault her for it,” he added. “We all lost somebody.”
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