The most emotionally charged moment of President Donald Trump’s speech to Congress on Tuesday belonged to Carryn Owens, the wife of Chief Petty Officer William (Ryan) Owens, the Navy SEAL killed in a commando raid that Trump authorized in January. The bi-partisan standing ovation that she drew lasted for several minutes as the widowed mother of three wept openly and, with eyes turned toward heaven, mouthed the words “I love you” to her dead husband.
Her husband’s sacrifice and her reaction broke through the partisan rancor that plagues Washington ― as well it should have.
But as a recent widow myself, I cringed on her behalf. By inviting her there, Trump exploited her and her husband’s death to score political points and to insulate himself from criticism about the raid in Yemen. Just earlier in the day, Trump ― the commander-in-chief ― shifted responsibility for the tragedy to the military. “They lost Ryan,” said the President, straight out of the blame-someone-else-on-the-playground handbook. Bill Owens, Ryan’s father, would have none of it. He has called for a full investigation into his son’s death and flat-out accused Trump of using the tragedy for political gain.
But putting politics aside, the rawness of Ms. Owens’ loss caused that now-familiar knot in my widow’s gut to pull tighter. I recognize grief when I see it and hers was on full display in front of Congress, America and the rest of the world.
It was genuine, authentic, and very, very real. What wasn’t any of those things was the reason why she was there in the first place.
Why was she invited to watch the speech from the First Lady’s box, seated next to First Daughter Ivanka, whose polished coolness stood in stark contrast with the widow’s struggle to stay in control? Shouldn’t the first step in honoring her husband and recognizing her loss have been respecting her enough to not turn her into a spectacle?
I know that presidents since Ronald Reagan have given speeches where they spotlight individuals to make a point, vignette-style. But Carryn Owens was used, paraded out to deflect attention from the man who some hold responsible for her widowhood. It was a move Trump has used in the past. Remember when he lined up women who had accused Bill Clinton of rape after the “I grab their pussies” audio surfaced? As HuffPost’s Jessica Samakow pointed out at the time, Trump doesn’t care a whit about the sexual assault of women. And I’d be highly suspect that he cares a whit about Carryn Owens or her suffering.
What he did to Carryn Owens was gross and manipulative. There is such a thing as a Widow’s Card ― when the inherent sympathies directed toward widows are used for someone’s gain. And while Owens may not have played that card, the President played it for her.
I know this because I have spent the past eight weeks watching how people respond to the news that my husband died. They want to show me kindness, give me things, help me. It’s human nature perhaps. I’ve seen it happen repeatedly. My plumber went out and bought me my very own toilet snake ― gratis, because you know, I’m a widow now. The mobile car detailing guy quoted me a price, but dropped it when he heard this was my dead husband’s car that I’m getting ready to sell.
Nice gestures, yes, but quite honestly it makes my skin crawl a little. I’m not comfortable being on the receiving end of pity, and that’s what the Widow’s Card buys you. In the case of Carryn Owens, her card bought a round of applause born from sympathy. But it also bought praise for a man who cares very little for any human life outside of his own.