RALEIGH, N.C. — 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. “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 Trump and his staff feuded 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.

Jones’ letter-writing began in 2003 after he attended the funeral of Marine Sgt. Michael Bitz, who was killed in March 2003.

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 in the Middle East, Asia and now Africa.

On Sunday, Oct. 21, Jones signed letters to the families of Sgt. La David Johnson and three other soldiers killed in a firefight with militants tied to the Islamic State group in Niger. He signed a total of eight letters that day, followed by evening Mass.

Days earlier, Trump became embroiled in a public dispute with Rep. Frederica Wilson, who had been in the car with Johnson’s widow when Trump called to offer condolences. The call came about after Trump had been silent about the deaths for over a week.

The president’s best course of action would have been to “just let it go,” Jones said. “After the call he made, it was misunderstood, maybe he could have called back and said, ‘I’m sorry you misunderstood me, but my deepest sympathies with you and your family.”

Janina Bitz-Vasquez, the widow of the Marine whose funeral triggered Jones’ epiphany, won’t say if she supports Jones’ stance on the war. She said she’s honored that he continues to honor the families of dead service members.

“He may not be able to stop the war because of it,” she said from Australia, where she lives with her second husband, a retired U.S. Marine, and four children – three by her first husband and one by her second. “But it’s honoring to the spouses. It’s honoring to the children. It’s honoring to the service members.”

More importantly, she said, it “sets a standard for taking personal responsibility and accountability” for other leaders.

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