The day after Chief Petty Officer William “Ryan” Owens was killed in a raid in Yemen on Jan. 29, President Donald Trump called Owens’ wife, Carryn, to offer his condolences and invite her and her three young children to the White House.
Then, almost as an afterthought, Trump mentioned that he was going to give a speech to Congress and invited her to attend as his guest.
“By the way, I’m going to be giving this speech in February,” Trump said to Owens, according to White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer. “If you feel comfortable, I would love to have you as a guest.”
Carryn Owens not only attended Trump’s first address to a joint session of Congress, but she also became part of its most memorable moment.
“It was obviously a very raw and emotional time for her,” Spicer told reporters Wednesday. “And she said that she appreciated the invitation, she would love to take him up on it.”
Owens and her children visited Washington on Tuesday, getting a tour of the White House, meeting with Trump and eating in the basement dining room near the Situation Room that is known as the Navy mess. That night, she and her parents attended the speech, sitting next to Trump’s daughter Ivanka. Afterward, the president and first lady Melania Trump met with them.
At her request, the White House did not add Carryn Owens to its official guest list, but the widow had agreed to allow Trump to mention her toward the end of his one-hour speech.
“Our goal was to make sure that we respected her wishes and her privacy, and again, even with referencing her in the speech, that was her decision,” Spicer said. “We asked her, the president would like to raise this, and she said, ‘I’d like that.’ And so that was coordinated with her, in terms of how public she wanted to be.”
Ryan Owens, 36, was killed in a firefight with suspected terrorists in the first covert counterterrorism operation authorized by Trump. Three other service members were wounded, and as many as 30 civilians died, including children. The Pentagon has opened three separate probes into the operation.
The White House has said the raid was a “successful operation by all standards,” citing 14 al Qaida members who were killed and valuable intelligence seized. The raid, aides claim, was initially planned by the Obama administration.
The president and Ivanka Trump paid their respects Feb. 1, when Ryan’s body arrived at Dover Air Force base in a flag-draped casket. That’s when Owens’ father, Bill, declined to meet with the president. Bill Owens, a military veteran, had reservations about the way the decision was made to launch his son’s mission.
Owens’ parents were not present at Trump’s speech Tuesday, and the White House did not say whether they had been invited.
Spicer defended his boss from criticism that Trump’s invitation was merely a photo op that exploited a tragedy.
“I think she has a right to honor the legacy, the sacrifice of her husband,” Spicer said. “If that’s the criticism that people have, they have a right to . . . but I would also suggest that we have a right to honor people who have served this nation, and the sacrifice that the families make of those.”
Trump spoke of Ryan Owens near the end of his speech.
“Ryan died as he lived: a warrior, and a hero – battling against terrorism and securing our nation,” he said.
Carryn Owens broke into tears, while Trump’s words were met with prolonged applause. “I love you, baby,” she mouthed while looking up at the ceiling.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misspelled the first name of Melania Trump.