Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey on Tuesday apologized to the mother of a Navy SEAL killed in Ramadi, Iraq, for saying the city's fall last week to ISIS "is not symbolic in any way."
Dempsey issued the apology after Debbie Lee, whose son, Marc, died in Ramadi in 2006, released an open letter demanding an apology for "the families whose loved ones' blood was shed in Ramadi."
"I've read your letter, and I do apologize if I've added to your grief," Dempsey wrote. "Marc and so many others died fighting to provide a better future for Iraq. 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 wrote Lee in a personal note.
"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. That's what I intended to convey."
Lee told Military.com on Tuesday that Dempsey followed up his personal note with a phone call.
"After I got off the phone with him I did think the apology was genuine," Lee said. She said Dempsey told her he was trying to explain in his Pentagon press briefing that Ramadi was not a city that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) considered significant for its campaign.
For her part, Lee said she still does not agree with Dempsey's view that what is happening in Iraq today is a different war against a different enemy than the one American troops battled through 2011. She also continues to believe Ramadi is significant because it is the capital of Anbar, the largest province in Iraq.
"I told him I felt [the war] was winnable over there," Lee said. "I offered him my strategy – I won't say what I told him because I don't want our enemies to know it. But he said he completely agreed with my military strategy."
Lee posted her open letter to her blog on AmericasMightyWarrior's.org, an organization she founded to provide support to service members and their families. The letter was quickly picked up and reposted on various media sites.
Dempsey's apology, published on the website Newsmax, was confirmed by the Pentagon.
Ramadi, the capital of Anbar Province, fell to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) fighters last week, though reports out of Baghdad on Tuesday say Iraqi government forces have retaken parts of the city. A Pentagon spokesman on Tuesday said Ramadi "remains highly contested."
Last Thursday, as the city was falling to ISIS, Dempsey played down its capture, telling Pentagon reporters it was more important strategically to retake an ISIS-held oil field in order to cut off a source of its revenue.
"The city itself is not symbolic in any way," he said. "It's not been declared part of [ISIL's] 'caliphate' on one hand or central to the future of Iraq." Dempsey said he did not want to see Ramadi fall, and that it will have to be retaken.
Lee, in her open letter, said Ramadi matters to families of those who fell there "and is very symbolic to us."
"You need to apologize to our troops whose bodies were blown to pieces from IEDs and bullet holes leaving parts and pieces behind, Ramadi matters to them," she wrote. "You need to apologize to our troops who endured the extreme temperatures and battled the terrorists in some of the worst battlefields in Iraq, Ramadi matters to them. They carry vivid memories of the battles and the teammates whose future is gone, Ramadi matters to them."
Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, also slammed Dempsey, saying the general's "unbelievable statement is an insult to all those brave Americans who served and sacrificed in Ramadi, and the families and loved ones who miss them so dearly."
McCain said 187 American service members died in the fight to secure Ramadi and another 1,150 were wounded.
During the press conference last week, Dempsey talked about Ramadi in the context of the Iraq government's campaign to retake northern areas where ISIS is operating and has held territory. Iraqi forces are moving through Diyala and into Tikrit and Beiji – site of a major oil field.
"The offensive north of Baghdad has been deliberate, measured, steady progress," Dempsey told reporters. The ISIS attack on Ramadi "is yet another indication that what the government of Iraq needs to do is connect these ink blots ... of their legitimate security forces, so that there isn't this constant back and forth."
Once the Iraqis again control Beiji they will have regained control of their entire oil infrastructure, in the north and south, Dempsey said in a Defense Department press report, "and deny ISIL the ability to generate revenue through oil."
But the Pentagon still does not view Ramadi as a strategic site.
"There's no change in Ramadi's status," Defense Department spokesman Col. Steve Warren said on Tuesday.
Last year, Lee publicly criticized President Obama for a lack of leadership and appearing to be surprised that ISIS had taken and was holding large areas of Iraq.
"It's disgusting. To me it's disgusting to watch," she told Fox News in an interview. "The President, seems to me, [surprise] is his reaction to everything ... Whether it's the VA scandal, the IRS scandal, whether it's Benghazi – everything takes this man by surprise. What's he doing in the White House?"
Lee also accused Obama of not supporting U.S. troops or their families and said she feels betrayed by him.
-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at email@example.com