This past weekend, in Waco, Texas, more than 200 guests — wounded war heroes and their supporters – attended a dinner in their honor, sponsored by Robert Agostinelli, chairman of the board of the National Review Institute. These warriors came to Texas to participate in the yearly mountain-bike ride at the ranch of their former commander in chief, George W. Bush, a president who is deeply involved with their healing process as they recover from war wounds both visible and invisible.
Agostinelli spoke directly to our war heroes:
After 9/11, each of you had a choice, and your choice was to defend this nation and our values and right to freedom. And you did so with your heart, your mind, and your soul, putting yourselves at daily mortal risk. Many have suffered great physical and emotional trauma and you’ve come back from a dark place to now become leaders in our nation. Finance and business leaders, community representatives.
Then he spoke to the rest of us:
We have a choice as well. We choose to be there for you. We are here to support you. We are family. Shoulder to shoulder forever. We will never forget you.
The healing goes on. The Bush Institute’s Warrior Wellness Alliance is focused on building a network of providers and veterans who suffer from the invisible wounds that are too often ignored — brain damage and psychological damage that can have more of an impact than physical wounds. The first step for a veteran is to admit he or she has a problem. Second, he or she gets involved with other warriors who have been through similar experiences and can relate. Caregivers including spouses are very important in this healing process.
Several of the inspiring vets whom President Bush painted in his book Portraits of Courage attended the event. Marine Corporal Dave Smith spoke to me about how he’s grown as he’s recovered from trauma. Smith accidentally shot a fellow Marine in the leg in Iraq — and almost committed suicide as a result. He put a gun in his mouth but reconsidered at the last minute when he thought of a fellow soldier who had succumbed to suicide. Smith’s motto now is “never give up,” and he is stronger. He proudly remembers “the ink on the hands of Iraqi civilians the first time they got to vote,” while Smith and other military personnel stood by to ensure the vote happened. He loves the Iraqi people and prays for them every day. He also loves his fellow warriors and says they are helping one another to heal.
Army Sergeant Michael Rodriguez (Rod) sustained multiple concussions in Iraq, which led to traumatic brain injury and double vision. He found corrective implantable lens that helped, but he needed to wear dark sunglasses for years until one day they were no longer necessary, and he was able to take them off. “I saw my son’s face light up,” Rod told me.
And he said, “Daddy, I can see your eyes!” And for me, I got that emotional connection back, which the sunglasses were preventing. I was hiding behind the sunglasses and wasn’t really facing what was going on with me. But taking that step, even just taking the sunglasses off, was probably one of the most healing moments of my life.
Retired Army Major Peter Way had his leg injured by shrapnel in Afghanistan and later amputated because of infection. He rides a hand cycle but this year switched to an E-bike (providing pedal assist), which he uses with a specially designed leg prosthesis. He treasures the experience that the E-bike allows him:
Out on the trail, that’s where the post-traumatic-stress, phantom leg pain and physical discomfort all goes away. It’s just me and nature and the bike and the trail.
Way echoed the sentiment expressed by Agostinelli the night before: “Everywhere I go, I appreciate the support I do have — Americans coming together.”
During the first day of the mountain-bike ride this year, Way hurt his back and was hospitalized overnight. Bush’s “Team 43” came to check on him en masse: “There is never a doubt that someone has my back. Figuratively and literally. Team 43 will get me through these times. Like a secret handshake.”
Way came back the next day for the last part of the ride. His courage and determination in the face of intense pain was inspirational and contagious.
We can be sympathetic to the problems our vets face, “but we can’t possibly relate to what it’s like to see a friend killed in combat,” President Bush told me. “And yet, there are others who can. . . . Vets helping vets is the best way to help people transition from the military to civilian life.”
Every warrior I spoke to said the same thing about President Bush: that his caring and ability to relate to the vets is genuine. Said Way: “President Bush is one of us, he’s not an outsider. Everything I’ve been through and lost, he relates to. We love him.”
Editor’s note: This article has been emended since it first appeared.