CONCORD, N.H. – On the campaign trail, presidential hopeful Bill Richardson tells a moving story about a New Mexico Marine killed in Iraq and his mom. But is it true?
Three years ago, Richardson attended a memorial service for Lance Cpl. Aaron Austin, 21, who died in April 2004. As he campaigns for the Democratic nomination, the New Mexico governor often recounts an emotional conversation with Austin’s mother, saying she thanked him for the federal death benefits she had received and even showed him the government check.
In speeches in New Hampshire, Richardson has gotten Austin’s name wrong at least once and age wrong at least twice. He also has called Austin the first New Mexico soldier killed in Iraq — instead of the third.
But that’s not what bothers the Marine’s mother, De’on Miller, of Lovington, N.M., who says the conversation about money never took place.
“I didn’t exchange words at all with the governor there except when he gave me the flag. And those few words — whatever was exchanged when he handed me the flag and the Spirit of New Mexico award — certainly had nothing to do with money,” she said Thursday in a telephone interview with The Associated Press.
Richardson acknowledges getting the soldier’s name and age wrong, but insists the conversation about money occurred. He says the encounter inspired him to push for legislation that made New Mexico the first state to underwrite $250,000 in life insurance for National Guard members.
“Governor Richardson learned of the low federal death benefit from Corporal Austin’s mother at the funeral,” Richardson spokesman Pahl Shipley said Sunday. “That inspired the governor to fight for a higher death benefit for New Mexico National Guard soldiers. He was proud to propose, support, and sign legislation raising that benefit, which is now $400,000.”
Shipley said Richardson was trying to convey that Miller was proud of her son and grateful for the check, not that she was complaining about it.
“The governor has never had anything but praise and admiration for Corporal Austin’s family, who showed great strength and pride through their grief,” Shipley said. “He does not want anything to take away from the sacrifice Corporal Austin and his family have made on behalf of this country.”
But Miller said telling people that she even mentioned money puts her in a bad light.
“I don’t know a person rich or poor that would be told that their only living child has been killed, and you’re going strike up a money conversation?” she said.
“I didn’t discuss money with my mom or anyone like that. Why would I discuss it with him at a memorial son for my son?” she said. “I’m still in shock, I’m not busy thanking him. At that moment, if I had every bill in the world due and no money, I’m not caring about that right now. … He just makes us sound stupid.”
Miller said her son’s death benefits totaled about $80,000 — including an initial check for about $12,000 — and that she divided it equally among herself, Austin’s father and her son’s best friend. Austin joined the Marines straight of high school and was by no means the family breadwinner, she said.
“Our family does come from what a lot of people would consider to be humble means, but we have never depended on my son’s paycheck,” she said. “I got the feeling he’s trying to use us to make us sound like little podunks or something. My husband makes $60,000 a year. I’m a college graduate. You know, I find it all very insulting.”
Miller, a staunch Republican, said she nevertheless held Richardson in high regard because of his respectful, low-key appearance at the memorial service.
Not a good way to kick off the day you make your presidential intentions official, Governor …