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After September 11, 2001, when President George W. Bush rallied the country from the top of that demolished fire truck with his megaphone and started a 20-year campaign in Afghanistan with the express purpose of seeking out the terrorists over there before they came through here to attack us, I criticized him for fear-mongering, for using the politics of fear to bring the country into perpetual war. In fact, I based an entire chapter in my book “False Alarm: The Truth about the Epidemic of Fear” on this notion.
I was wrong, as the abrupt departure from Afghanistan is showing us. We feel vulnerable again behind a weak leader, vulnerable to mushrooming groups of terrorists. In contrast, Bush was strong and we felt protected by our military after that fateful day in late 2001.
Over the years, Bush showed me this strength in unexpected ways when he allowed me to ride along with the wounded warfighters over challenging terrain (initially in Palo Duro Canyon in the 105-degree heat and later on his ranch in Crawford, Texas) from 2012 to 2019 during the Warrior 100K Mountain Bike rides. His strength and toughness were always personal, one on one with his vets.
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He rode upfront on the trails because he was an excellent rider, not because anyone was pandering. And no one was in awe of him. He was one of them.
Though I have interviewed him multiple times and come to know him for the challenging yet gentle leader, it was never about him. It was always about the vets, helping them overcome all hurdles (physical and metaphysical) from the war to return to the new normal.
He was greatly concerned about the invisible wounds of war, post-traumatic stress, and traumatic brain injury that are just as afflicting as any physical wounds. And he treated these heroes with respect, as equals, as though they had lost a visible limb.
They shared this regard among themselves, which lifted them up, whether they were active duty or reserve or retired. If one fell, others helped them back on the bike. Indeed, “getting back on the bike” was more than just metaphorical.
It was always about the vets, about helping them overcome all hurdles (physical and metaphysical) from the war to return to the new normal.
When Bush’s book “Portraits of Courage: A Commander in Chief’s Tribute to America’s Warriors” came out, I interviewed several vets in the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum, where the paintings were on display.
One portrait of Master Sgt. Roque Urena and his wife Marlene struck me the most. Roque was a medic in the Air Force for 25 years and served in Iraq in 2004, treating more than 3,500 injuries as a shift leader in the ER.
He came home severely depressed, and the painting centers on his hand on his wife’s shoulder as she smiles at him and comforts him. Her love, and later the bike ride and camaraderie with his fellow wounded warfighters, has helped him to heal.
But Marlene told me a remarkable story that few knew of, about a man who came to visit with her and Roque, an unassuming man who hugged them and shared tears, with no cameras, no microphone, no photo op. That man was President George W. Bush.
On September 11, 2021, there will be a 20th anniversary commemoration at the World Trade Center site. It will feel emptier now because Afghanistan is a lost war, haunted not just by the memory of those we lost both here in New York City and on the battlefield there, but also those we may still lose in the years to come at the hands of emerging terrorists.
Bush was shown with retired firefighter Bob Beckwith (R) at the World Trade Center disaster scene on September 14, 2001.
As far as I am concerned, there is only one president who deserves to be invited, only one who will fit in seamlessly with the men and women who were and still are under his command.