President Donald Trump’s phone call to the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson has dominated the news for the better part of a week, opening up a rift with the fallen soldier’s family, pulling White House Chief of Staff John Kelly into the controversy and raising uncomfortable questions about the president’s treatment of Gold Star families.
But the political debate that exploded over the call has overshadowed the other lives lost that day: the three other U.S. soldiers who were killed with Johnson on Oct. 4, when militants attacked them in Niger in West Africa.
Staff Sgt. Dustin M. Wright, 29, was a class clown who could quote just about any comedy movie; a short and chubby child, he grew up into a fearsome Green Beret and was preparing for a future with a girlfriend in Philadelphia.
Staff Sgt. Bryan C. Black, 35, was a fierce competitor who spoke three foreign languages, including the local dialect in Niger; a father of two who excelled at medical studies, he was a Green Beret medic.
Staff Sgt. Jeremiah W. Johnson, 39, has dedicated a decade of his life to military service, having earned a dozen medals, ribbons and badges.
Here are their stories:
Though Wright had plans to move to Philadelphia to be closer to a woman he had started dating, the 29-year-old, who joined the Army in 2012, left for Africa in August, propelled by a sharp sense of duty, his brother Will said in a phone interview. It was his second assignment in Africa.
The third of four brothers in a military family, he was a bit of a gentle giant, his brother said, a short, chubby younger boy who grew into an offensive and defensive lineman on his high school football team. Known as the “big guy,” he could also recite the line to just about any comedy film.
“As he got older, he’s this massive rough and tough John Wayne kind of guy,” Will said. “But if you knew him and talked to him, he was just a lovable clown. He was the nicest, most gentle man you ever met.”
The boys’ parents were in the Army when they were growing up near Lyons, Georgia. Only about a year apart in age, the brothers were very close.
“We could finish each other’s sentences and usually it was some sort of comedy or movie quotes,” said Will. “Any cheesy comedy you can think of, we knew the lines.”
Wright loved the beach and boating, accompanying his brother and a friend on a 10-day trip sailing down the Intracoastal Waterway between Norfolk, Virginia, and Saint Simons Island in Georgia. This past summer, Wright had met the woman he started dating at a country music festival in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, Will said. He had plans to move closer to her once he returned from Africa.
“They were set to start their lives together,” Will said.
Wright was buried last week at a family plot in a cemetery in Georgia. More than two-thirds of the family in the plot are veterans, Will said. His brother is the first to have been killed in action.
“He was doing what he was loved,” Will said. “ That was where he was supposed to be and what he was supposed to be doing. We’re thankful.”
Black did not just speak English, French and Arabic; the 35-year-old had also learned Hausa, the local dialect in Niger, because he wanted to communicate directly with the people.
He did not just learn chess when he was a child; he dominated at competitions.
He did not just go through rigorous physical training to become a Green Beret; he also excelled in his medical studies.
Black, of Puyallup, Washington, was remembered for his fierce, competitive nature, his obituary says.
Frustrated after his older brother won a chess tournament when Bryan was in the fourth grade, he spent the entire summer studying the game. By the sixth grade, he had earned a national ranking.
That drive later pushed him toward a range of hobbies and skills: poker, carpentry, stock trading, martial arts and roofing.
“He was always learning something, mastering something,” father Hank Black said at his funeral, the Fayetteville Observer reported.
A former roommate from California, Joe Donovan, said that the first time he met Black, the man was playing six games of online poker and six games of chess on his computer simultaneously. “What are you doing?” he asked.
“Right now, winning,” Black shot back.
A similar drive had prompted Black’s foray into wrestling. He pushed himself so hard during a bout of training in high school that he suffered a heat stroke, but he stuck with it, according to his obituary. As a student at Central Washington University, he wrestled for the varsity team, and graduated in 2002 with a degree in business administration.
He had earned money for his education by buying and selling rare coins.
After graduation, Black moved to Mammoth Lakes, California, to work as a ski instructor, where he met the woman who would become his wife, Michelle Richmond Black. The two married in 2005 and have two sons together, ages 9 and 11. Black joined the Army in 2009.
Pictures posted on Facebook show a procession of cars and motorcycles bringing Black’s coffin to his home in North Carolina. Firefighters and other service members saluted from highway overpasses. And in Fayetteville, where he lived with his family, a crowd of people stood in the street, waving American flags as the coffin was driven by.
Johnson’s family described him as a loyal man who loved his country.
“He was a man of many talents, he enjoyed working on and riding motorcycles, forging and customizing knives, smoking cigars and his tobacco pipe, and enjoying the outdoors with his family,” his obituary says.
For some, he was the beloved crazy uncle who never let a dull moment seep into his day.
As his obituary says, Johnson’s “immortal words” were “WOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”
“He was wild & outgoing. Just always on 100; always making you want to pull your hair out . . .,” his niece, Carrie Gomez, wrote on Facebook. “My uncle J was everything your uncle is suppose[d] to be to you. Hard on you at times, there for you when you need it . ... I will miss you so much I can not even put it into words. ... Thank you for the ultimate sacrifice.”
In another Facebook post sharing a picture of Johnson holding a cigar, Gomez wrote: “Our crazy family get togethers will never be the same. I love & miss you.”
Johnson, who was from Springboro, Ohio, owned and operated his own business before he joined the Army in October 2007, according to his obituary.
“Jeremiah was doing what he really wanted to do,” Jeff Baldridge, a neighbor and family friend, told WHIO in Dayton. “He really wanted to be an NCO [noncommissioned officer] in the United States Army.”
Johnson left behind his wife of 15 years, Crystal Johnson, and his two teenage daughters.
Johnson was born in North Carolina but moved to Ohio in his 20s to be closer to his mother and stepfather, the Dayton Daily News reported.
Flags were flown at half-staff last week in Springboro, Ohio, a suburb of Cincinnati and Dayton, as the community remembered one of its own.
“He was all about country, family, moral fiber. He was someone who, if you met him, you liked him immediately,” Springboro Mayor John Agenbroad told NBC affiliate WLWT.