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‘Learn his name first’: The politicizing of military widows is touching a nerve

By: Alex Horton, The Washington Post
January 7, 2018 Updated: January 7, 2018 at 8:39 am
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Jenn Budenz lies on a blanket with her 2-month-old son, AJ, as they visit the grave of Maj. Andrew Budenz at Miramar National Cemetery on May 22, 2014, in San Diego. (Hayne Palmour IV/San Diego Union-Tribune)

In a way, Jenn Budenz lies with him, her right hand resting on their infant, with a gaze fixed on a framed photo of Maj. Andrew Budenz in a sharp Marine Corps uniform.

His face is everywhere at the grave — screened on a blanket and printed on a shirt worn by Andrew Jr., who is tucked in a car seat, staring back at his mother with blue eyes inherited from his father. Andrew Sr. had been dead for eight months in 2014, yet Jenn and her son visited daily.

But you wouldn’t know any of that from the photo of Budenz rocketing across social media, posted, reposted, stripped of all context and infused with political memes and percolated for months in conservative media channels before it reached President Trump’s Twitter feed on Thursday.

“So beautiful….Show this picture to the NFL players who still kneel!” Trump said of the photo, referring to football players who have taken a knee during the national anthem to protest police killings of black civilians, a politically divisive movement led by quarterback Colin Kaepernick that has rankled some as anti-military.

San Diego Union-Tribune photographer Hayne Palmour IV took the photo of Jenn Budenz in 2014 at Miramar National Cemetery in San Diego, for a Memorial Day story about the long tail of grief felt by families of fallen service members.

“Gold star family” is the term for loved ones left behind by troops killed in action, though the Budenz family is not in that grimly exclusive club. Andrew Budenz deployed three times to Iraq and Afghanistan but was killed in a motorcycle accident near his California base in 2013, the Union-Tribune reported.

In the tweet, Palmour’s photo was taken and altered with a message in stark white letters: “This is why we stand.”

The emotionally charged photo of a grieving family is part of a trend of politicizing images of troops and their families, underscoring the significant rift of common experience and understanding between the military and the rest of the public.

Trump has been selective in his treatment of grieving military families, hailing the nameless photo of Budenz but lashing out at the family of a slain Muslim Army officer and fueling bitter disputes over what he privately told the family of Sgt. La David Johnson, who was among four soldiers killed in Niger in October.

Jenn Budenz has company in Seana Arrechaga, whose husband, Army Sgt. 1st Class Ofren Arrechaga, died on a mission with five others in Afghanistan in March 2011. It was his fourth deployment. Their story was later profiled in The Post.

Seana Arrechaga holds her husband’s hands as he lies in his casket on April 6, 2011, in Clarksville, Tenn. Sgt. 1st Class Ofren Arrechaga was killed in a firefight in Afghanistan eight days earlier. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post) 

Arrechaga said images of her husband’s funeral, taken by Post photographer Katherine Frey, have also spiraled across the Internet and appropriated in similar ways since last year.

A pattern emerges, she said. When Trump and other politicians and commentators denounce the NFL protests as disrespectful to troops, a photo of her at her late husband’s casket, her hand on top of his folded hands in crisp white dress gloves, reemerges as a divisive meme.

“I understand why people are kneeling, and I understand why people are upset by that,” she said. However, her husband was a Cuban immigrant, and the idea his image has been used in an effort to stifle speech has unsettled her.

“My husband fought and died for all of our rights. He came from a place with no rights. That’s what his American Dream was,” she said. “He loved being in the Army. It’s one thing when they share the photo and pay their respects. But learn his name first.”

She relayed that message to conservative commentator Dinesh D’Souza on Twitter, who posted the photo of Arrechaga on Twitter in September with the caption: “For people with normal human sympathies, it’s not hard to decide which side to be on #TakeAKnee,” referring to the protests.

Arrechaga responded Thursday after finding the photo in a search.

“A prime example of personal photos being used against our wishes.”

D’Souza and Budenz did not return requests for comment. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders declined to comment.

Corey Jones, a college student who tweeted the image of Budenz that Trump amplified, said he did not intend to relay a political message and instead tweeted to honor the woman, though he did not know at the time who she was or the circumstances of her husband’s death.

“It’s terrible to use our military to score political points because it encourages the public to view our military as partisan,” said Kori Schake, a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and co-editor of the book “Warriors and Citizens” with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.

She said research by others points to a growing belief the military is fair game to mine for partisan talking points because of its place as America’s most trusted institution. “That erodes public support for the military,” she said.

Kathy Roth-Douquet, the chief executive of the support nonprofit Blue Star Families, said she doesn’t like photos like Budenz’s to be used in a “emotionally manipulative way.” But she does appreciate that people are considering the moments like the one captured by the Union-Tribune, even in passing. “It’s a tension between those two things. It’s too easy for people to not see us at all.”

And yet, the use of the photo “shows how disconnected people are from the military, and a real confusion about our role in society,” she added.

Arrechaga echoed that sentiment. “We’re so disconnected from our current war that people forget we’re even there,” she said, referring to the war in Afghanistan that entered its 17th year with a death of a Green Beret, killed in combat on Monday.

But the recognition is coming in the wrong way, she said, concerned the warped idea of who her husband was might affect how their 9-year-old son, Alston, will see his father when he Googles his name someday.

She wants him and everyone else to know the soldier whose men called him A.C. was more than a body in a casket. Ofren loved to dance, and his thick Cuban accent lingered on certain words. His laugh was infectious and lifted the spirit of the soldiers around him.

Ofren took his citizenship oath in one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces in 2008 — an incredible detail lost in the repurposed photos, Arrechaga said.

“He loved his guys. He loved his family,” Arrechaga said. “That to me is the most important thing.”

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Read this story at The Washington Post.

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