Gen. Martin Dempsey Apologizes to Gold Star Mother for Ramadi Comments

PHOTO: Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, left, accompanied by Defense Secretary Ash Carter, right, speaks during a news conference at the Pentagon, April 16, 2015. Andrew Harnik/AP Photo
Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, left, accompanied by Defense Secretary Ash Carter, right, speaks during a news conference at the Pentagon, April 16, 2015.

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has apologized to the mother of a Navy SEAL killed in Ramadi, Iraq, in 2006 following comments he made last week where he downplayed the long-term symbolic importance of the city of Ramadi falling into ISIS hands.

The city under attack from ISIS fighters is “not symbolic in any way. It's not been declared, you know, part of the caliphate, on the one hand, or central to the future of Iraq. But we want to get it back, Gen. Martin Dempsy said at a news conference last week.

He explained at the time that the fight against ISIS “is not brick and mortar” and “I would much rather that Ramadi not fall, but it won't be the end of the campaign should it fall," Dempsey said.

Dempsey’s comments upset Debbie Lee, the mother of fallen Navy SEAL Marc Lee, who died fighting in Ramadi in August 2006.

Lee penned an open letter to Dempsey demanding an apology for his comments. She told ABC News she originally wanted to send it directly to Dempsey but said she could only get the general Pentagon address from his office.

So she turned to the Web and sent it to some media contacts she had from interviews after her son’s death.

“I am shaking and tears are flowing down my cheeks as I watch the news and listen to the insensitive, pain inflicting comments made by you in regards to the fall of Ramadi,” she wrote.

“The city itself is not symbolic in any way? Oh, really?” she wrote. “Are you willing to meet with me and with the families who have lost a son, daughter, husband, wife, father, mother, aunt, uncle, grandson, or teammate?”

“My son and many others gave their future in Ramadi. Ramadi mattered to them,” she added.

A spokesman for Dempsey confirmed that he sent a letter of apology to Lee on Monday and phoned her on Tuesday, when Lee said she formally accepted his apology.

In his letter, Dempsey said he had read Lee’s open letter and wrote, “I do apologize if I’ve added to your grief.”

“Marc and so many others died fighting to provide a better future for Iraq,” he wrote. “He and those with whom he served did all that their nation asked. They won their fight, and nothing will ever diminish their accomplishments nor the honor in which we hold their service.”

Dempsey said that in his comments he intended to convey that “we are in a different fight now, with a different enemy, and with a different relationship with the Government of Iraq. They must determine the path and pace of this fight.”

Lee said the exchange has generated a lot of attention and “stirred something for Americans.” She was in the middle of another media interview when she was contacted by ABC News today. "I had no idea this would be the impact,” she said today.

Despite what Lee described as a genuine apology, she said this won’t be the end of the issue. She said she wants Dempsey to make a public apology directed at the hundreds of families who contacted her to agree with the message of her open letter. She described the situation as a “real David and Goliath story” and said she wouldn’t hesitate to speak out again.

“We need to do that more often to keep our country what it was intended to be,” she said.

Col. Ed Thomas, Dempsey’s spokesman, said: “The general cares deeply about Gold Star families and the burdens which they continue to carry."

Dempsey actively works with military families who have lost loved ones during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, in particular, the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, a nonprofit organization that offers support, counseling and assistance to military survivor families.

Dempsey meets privately every year with the children of TAPS families at the organization’s annual gathering.