‘Penance’: NC congressman writes to families of dead troops

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — On a Sunday morning more than two weeks after four U.S. soldiers were ambushed and killed in Niger, Rep. Walter Jones sat at the desk in his North Carolina office, doing what he’s done more than 11,000 times in 14 years: signing letters to families of the dead troops.

“My heart aches as I write this letter for I realize you are suffering a great loss,” the letter begins.

It’s a form letter, but the Republican congressman signs each one personally — penance, he says, for voting yes for the Iraq war in 2002.

“For me, it’s a sacred responsibility that I have to communicate my condolences to a family,” Jones said in a telephone interview. “And it’s very special to me because it goes back to my regretting that I voted to go into the Iraq war.”

While President Donald Trump and his staff feuded publicly this month with a congresswoman and the pregnant widow of a soldier killed Oct. 4 in Niger, Jones was quietly continuing his letter writing.

He gets permission from a military liaison who makes sure that family members want condolences from a congressman they likely never heard of. Then, from a desk drawer in his office in Greenville, he retrieves the same black ink fountain pen that he’s used since he began this ritual years ago. In some cases, he sends letters to multiple relatives of a single soldier.

Jones’ letter-writing began in 2003 after he attended the funeral of Marine Sgt. Michael Bitz, who was killed in March 2003, not long after the Iraq war began.

He sat with Bitz’s widow, Janina, and watched as her young son played with a toy nearby during the service at Camp Lejeune, which is part of Jones’ district.

“And I felt the guilt, but also the pain of voting to send her husband as well as thousands of other military to a war that was unnecessary,” he said. “Obviously, the majority of these families will never know me and vice versa. But I want them to know that my heart aches as their heart aches.”

The Iraq war has been followed by a succession of deadly conflicts with Al Qaida, the Islamic State and their kindred terrorist groups in the Middle East, Asia and now Africa.