The Day a President Cried

Posted on: May 24th, 2015 by Will Rodriguez 22 Comments

For some reason this Memorial Day Weekend is hitting me exceptionally harder than normal.  I’m having a mental block but like on all Memorial Days I try to make it a point to remember and meditate on the 11 men I knew that lost their lives in the service of this nation.  I’m not the only one I’m sure.  Others have suffered infinitely greater loss.  I share this not to garner sympathy but spotlight those that have made the ultimate sacrifice, focus others on what Memorial Day is about and share the human impact that goes on long after the fallen fall.

Anyway I was sitting catching up on the news and read the story below and just broke down crying like a baby.  It’s good to cry sometimes.  It lets the pain out, it makes one remember and good judgement is often developed through experience and as vicarious as reading is, it is a form of experience.

This is a reprint of a reprint and the most complete excerpt I’ve read to date from Dana Perino’s new book “And the Good News Is…”

News of America’s military men and women [who] were wounded and killed in Iraq and Afghanistan almost overwhelmed me on some days. I may have sounded strong when I was talking to the press, but sometimes I had to push my feelings way down in order to get any words out of my mouth to make statements and answer questions.

The hardest days were when President Bush went to visit the wounded or families of the fallen. If it was tough for me, you can only imagine what it was like for the families and for a president who knew that his decisions led his troops into battles where they fought valiantly but were severely injured or lost their lives.

He regularly visited patients at Walter Reed military hospital near the White House. These stops were unannounced because of security concerns and hassles for the hospital staff that come with a full blown presidential visit.

One morning in 2005, Scott McClellan sent me in his place to visit the wounded warriors. It was my first time for that particular assignment, and I was nervous about how the visits would go.

The president was scheduled to see 25 patients at Walter Reed. Many of them had traumatic brain injuries and were in very serious, sometimes critical, condition. Despite getting the best treatment available in the world, we knew that some would not survive.

We started in the intensive care unit. The chief of naval operations (CNO) briefed the president on our way into the hospital about the first patient we’d see. He was a young Marine who had been injured when his Humvee was hit by a roadside bomb. After his rescue, he was flown to Landstuhl U.S. Air Force Base in Kaiserslautern, Germany. At his bedside were his parents, wife, and five-year-old son.

“What’s his prognosis?” the president asked.

“Well, we don’t know sir, because he’s not opened his eyes since he arrived, so we haven’t been able to communicate with him. But no matter what, Mr. President, he has a long road ahead of him,” said the CNO.

We had to wear masks because of the risk of infection to the patient. I watched carefully to see how the family would react to President Bush, and I was worried that they might be mad at him and blame him for their loved one’s situation. But I was wrong.

The family was so excited the president had come. They gave him big hugs and thanked him over and over. Then they wanted to get a photo. So he gathered them all in front of Eric Draper, the White House photographer.

President Bush asked, “Is everybody smiling?” But they all had ICU masks on. A light chuckle ran through the room as everyone got the joke.

The Marine was intubated. The president talked quietly with the family at the foot of the patient’s bed. I looked up at the ceiling so that I could hold back tears.

After he visited with them for a bit, the president turned to the military aide and said, “Okay, let’s do the presentation.” The wounded warrior was being awarded the Purple Heart, given to troops that suffer wounds in combat.

Everyone stood silently while the military aide in a low and steady voice presented the award. At the end of it, the Marine’s young child tugged on the president’s jacket and asked, “What’s a Purple Heart?”

The president got down on one knee and pulled the little boy closer to him. He said, “It’s an award for your dad, because he is very brave and courageous, and because he loves his country so much. And I hope you know how much he loves you and your mom, too.”

As they hugged, there was a commotion from the medical staff as they moved toward the bed.

The Marine had just opened his eyes. I could see him from where I stood.

The CNO held the medical team back and said, “Hold on, guys. I think he wants the president.”

The president jumped up and rushed over to the side of the bed. He cupped the Marine’s face in his hands. They locked eyes, and after a couple of moments the president, without breaking eye contact, said to the military aide, “Read it again.”

So we stood silently as the military aide presented the Marine with the award for a second time. The president had tears dripping from his eyes onto the Marine’s face. As the presentation ended, the president rested his forehead on the wounded warrior’s for a moment.

Now everyone was crying, and for so many reasons: the sacrifice; the pain and suffering; the love of country; the belief in the mission; and the witnessing of a relationship between a soldier and his Commander in Chief that the rest of us could never fully grasp. (In writing this book, I contacted several military aides who helped me track down the name of the Marine. I hoped for news that he had survived. He did not. He died during surgery six days after the president’s visit. He is buried at Arlington Cemetery and is survived by his wife and their three children.)

And that was just the first patient we saw. For the rest of the visit to the hospital that day, almost every family had the same reaction of joy when they saw the president.

But there were exceptions. One mom and dad of a dying soldier from the Caribbean were devastated, the mom beside herself with grief. She yelled at the president, wanting to know why it was her child and not his who lay in that hospital bed.

Her husband tried to calm her and I noticed the president wasn’t in a hurry to leave—he tried offering comfort but then just stood and took it, like he expected and needed to hear the anguish, to try to soak up some of her suffering if he could.

Later as we rode back on Marine One to the White House, no one spoke.

But as the helicopter took off, the president looked at me and said, “That mama sure was mad at me.” Then he turned to look out the window of the helicopter. “And I don’t blame her a bit.”

 One tear slipped out the side of his eye and down his face. He didn’t wipe it away, and we flew back to the White House.

I would ask one not focus on the individuals especially the political ones but the emotion and sense of responsibility the President felt that day.  That to me is the core meaning of Memorial Day.  Sadness for the loss and responsibility to do our best in the present so that sacrifice isn’t in vain.

Be Respectful, Candid and Pertinent. No Posers, No Trolls…
  • LauraKinCA

    No matter what else can be said of GWB, good or bad, you knew that he truly cared about the troops he sent into harms way and felt the responsibility and grief of loss. Shed a few tears reading that, good tears. Thanks for posting Will.

  • clluelo

    OH Will thank you for this . This is truly what Memorial day is

  • toril

    Will, thank you for sharing this.  I hope all of those who think Memorial Day is a day of sales and bbqs will read this and understand what it is truly about.

  • Camo_Steve

    Thanks for sharing this Will.

    Btw, I noticed the excerpt had a statement duplicated twice:
    “the Marine’s young child tugged on the president’s jacket and asked, “What’s a Purple Heart?”
    The president got down on one knee and pulled the little boy closer to him. He said, “It’s an award for your dad, because he is very brave and courageous, and because he loves his country so much. And I hope you know how much he loves you and your mom, too.”

  • engelbrad

    Great article Will!

  • Txazz

    LauraKinCA Yes, and he did it without fanfare then and NOW, many years after leaving office.  He ran toward his duty and not away from the grief of the families.

  • Txazz

    Brings one to cleansing tears and I just got through praying for the families and friends of our lost troops, especially the most recent ones, when L pointed me over here. I had been thinking about it anyway as I always remember how you make sure ppl under stand the difference between Memorial Day and Veterans Day.  Ppl need to be reminded.
    So, to again read Dana’s first visit to the hospital with W brings home the message of our fallen warriors and the ones they left behind.  There are plenty of Americans who draw their families around them this Memorial Day for get-togethers, but, still celebrate the true meaning.  A friend  from Cape Cod just emailed me she had visited the cemetery to plant a flag on her father in law’s grave.
    This story of The Day a President Cried has made it’s way around the world and shows America honors and cares for our military men and women in death and in life.  It shows our Commander and Chief, President Bush led our military and set the example for Americans.  He is still actively supporting our veterans many years out of office.   Others will see us truly celebrate this holiday and understand.  Our history clearly shows that our United States Military is why we are the greatest nation in the world.

  • YankeePapa

    ,
    …President G.W. Bush made some mistakes and endorsed some unfortunate policies that would be amplified by his successor.  But he never held those who served in contempt, never thought of them as mere tools in “applied social metaphysics…”, or as those whose loss could be dismissed as “yesterday’s news…”
    .
    …One reason that it gets harder for some vets to write about Memorial Day is the fact that for so many Americans it just means a day away from work or school and sales at Wally World.  The disconnect between American society and the forces that serve is pronounced and getting more so.
    .
    …When I was born, and in my early years, a large number of those in Congress had served in WW2… some had left Congress to serve.  Older members had sometimes lost sons.  To my knowledge, not one member of Congress lost a son in Vietnam.  Harvard, which lost so many graduates from the Civil War to Tokyo Bay… gloated over how few it lost in Vietnam.
    .
    …When the military is not being ignored, sometimes it is being tampered with.  Feherenbach’s warning about politicos trying to “…make the military as ‘liberal’ and ‘well run’ as the society from which it comes…”  Being fit to fight stands rather low on the PC totem pole these days.  
    .
    …Society as a whole cheered the early days of Gulf War Two as if they were following a football game.  When the lightning war turned into endless patrols in dusty villages and dark back alleys… most of society grew annoyed and lost interest.  The far Left at last felt free to come out of the woodwork and again assail the military (though unlike Vietnam, most knew it was safer to go after the institution than the individual soldiers…)
    .
    …The military today is held in contempt by the administration and many politicos.  As for the rest of the population… some parrot the far Left… “No blood for oil!”  Many have almost no awareness… Maybe some watched “Battlefield Los Angeles…”  Of course those who have served… those with close relatives and friends who have served… have an awareness.   Idaho is small… its total population smaller than a great many cities… but its enlistment rate in both the regulars and the reserves is much higher than much of the country… so the gap is not so pronounced here.  
    .
    …A piece that I read today (I have some quibbles with it… draftees did not come from “all segments of society” during the Vietnam war) takes a thoughtful look at the “desocialization” of the Armed Forces from the rest of society.  While Memorial Day is about the fallen… the widening gap affects the attitudes or even awareness of many in the Republic.
    .
    http://www.msn.com/en-us/news/us/us-military-and-civilians-are-increasingly-divided/ar-BBkaN9f
    .
    …To those who care; know that it means something.
    .
    -Yankee Papa-

  • Recon6

    Thanks Major…. for some of us there is a hole in our hearts, that not even time can fill… Blessings….6

  • Txazz LauraKinCA 
    I’m greatly impressed that none of these stories came out when he was actually serving as president and would have helped his faltering approval rate as well as demonstrated his humanity.

  • Camo_Steve 
    Thanks for the heads up!

  • YankeePapa 
    I came across this same article and posted it on G&C’s new Facebook page.  I wrote:
    “Very interesting read that briefly touches on some of the issues and history I discussed here: http://gruntsandco.com/0-45-americas-cultural-disdain-soldiers/ So sad but so terribly accurate and uncomfortable to acknowledge especially by those that don’t care.”

  • YankeePapa

    majrod YankeePapa ,
    .
    …Today TCM running some military themed films for Memorial Day weekend.  Some classics like  “Bataan” and “A Walk In The Sun…” and “The Story Of G.I. Joe…”  But once again running “The Dirty Dozen…”  While it’s a well made film and something of a hoot… it hardly represents the average American in uniform…
    .
    …MAD magazine ran a cartoon page… Shows all-American 19 year old freckle-faced soldier home on leave with his girlfriend walking out of a theater.  Posters for film (inspired by “Dirty Dozen”) show maniacal type soldiers with bayonets dripping blood as they almost slaver…  She stares at boyfriend and says, “And you call yourself a soldier…”

    .
    …Still, better than AMC… Among other films it is running the first three in the “Rambo” series.  Hardly an accurate representation of the vast majority of American military veterans.   Muscle bound, incoherent, and incapable of fitting in with American society…  But to a most of a generation and more… that is one of  their main images of the “typical” Vietnam veteran.

    .
    -YP-

  • YankeePapa majrod 
    Yeah, I DVR or watch a bunch of these over the holiday.
    Just finished watching The Dirty Dozen, it’s wildly, inaccurately “historically” based on “the Filthy Thirteen”.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Filthy_Thirteen  The movie is very entertaining and I love the characters and all star cast though the equipment mistakes always irk me (no M3 “Greaseguns” in Normandy and they wore the M42 and not the M44 uniform) but I’m an equipment nut.  I’d love a gig as a technical consultant to Hollywood movies but I’m not moving to California, ever.

    Watching “The Story of GI Joe” as I type this.  Always loved Earnie Pyle.  Very few journalists spend time these days extolling the vanilla grunt that deploys longer, carries most of the burden, has little of the fancy gear & support and none of the glory of his special ops brethren who often look down on him.  One of the best scenes (and probably ONLY one ever done) is watching a 57mm antitank gun crew but their gun in action in seconds after the 3/4ton stops.  You can tell these aren’t stuntmen but actual grunts if you watch how they work e.g. look for the soldiers laying on top of the gun trails using their weight to keep the gun from moving as it fires.

    I’ve also watched a personal favorite, “Pork Chop Hill” starring Gregory Peck.  I think it’s the only movie out there depicting Lieutenants as worth a crap.

  • YankeePapa

    majrod YankeePapa ,
    .
    …The vast majority of the soldiers shown in “The Story of G.I. Joe” were in fact veterans back from Europe who were loaned to the studio before being used as cadre for units heading for Okinawa (and Japan if it came to it…)
    .
    …Pork Chop Hill was made by the same director who made “All Quiet On The Western Front…” (Lewis Milestone) Technical advisers SLA Marshall and the actual C.O. of King Company, Joe Clemons. 
    .
    …The film may not be “Lawrence of Arabia…” but it is a good approximation of war in Korea in 1953.  Reinforcing company somehow gets the idea that it is moving up to a secure position rather than attacking and gets shot to ribbons.  Higher command not absorbing the main fact for some time… King company badly understrength and holding on by its fingernails.

    .
    …Radio contact intermittent due to enemy jamming… messenger gets rattled and doesn’t have a clear idea of reply to initial message.  Company commander during assault having to order subordinate leaders to “…make the men use their weapons…” when the action starts.

    .
    …Milestone also made, “A Walk In The Sun”, but that film was messed with by the censors and the Army to such a degree that it is a pale shadow of what it was supposed to have been.
    .
    …A G.I. just back from years of combat in Europe wrote and explained that while he profoundly admired “All Quiet On The Western Front”, he had no end of problems with “A Walk In The Sun”, wrapping up his remarks with the comment that “A director should never accept a full colonel as a technical adviser on a film about a platoon…”  That G.I. was future director Sam Fuller. 
    .
    …Quotation below from TCM re Pork Chop Hill…
    .

    “…Collectors of movie trivia should know that William Wellman, Jr., the son of legendary director, William Wellman (Wings, 1927), and a familiar face in sixties drive-in fare like Born Losers (1967) and Winter-A-Go-Go
    (1965), has a small role as ‘Iron Man.’
    .
    …Barry McGuire, the former lead
    singer of The New Christy Minstrels, also turns up as a minor character
    named Lt. Attridge. McGuire would go on to score a number one hit with
    the protest song, “Eve of Destruction,” and then abandon the pop music
    scene for a career in Christian music…”
    .
    -YP-

  • Recon6

    majrod YankeePapa Tell me a story of the foot soldier
    And I will tell you a story of all Wars….

  • YankeePapa

    .
    …On another note.  While the U.S. and France are getting along better these days than they did from 1955-2001… there is still a distinct leftover sour taste.  Perhaps some of it was an annoyance that we had taken large tracts of real estate off the market to use as a final resting place for many thousands of doughboys and G.I.’s who perished keeping France from permanently becoming Baja Deutschland… Some other parts of Europe not exactly overwhelmed with gratitude. 
    .
    …But there is a clear cut exception.  Holland.  For years I have heard stories about how common citizens there have never forgotten the many G.I.s who died helping to liberate their country.  And, unlike Korea… the gratitude has been passed on to later generations.  Story appeared today:
    .
    http://www.msn.com/en-us/news/us/americans-gave-their-lives-to-defeat-the-nazis-the-dutch-have-never-forgotten/ar-BBkct8c
    .
    -YP-

  • LawyerHandle

    When Perino went on NPR to discuss this excerpt they cut the first part about the Purple Heart from the final edit that went on air, keeping in only the part about the mother yelling at Bush. Dana discussed that on Megyn Kelly’s show the next day (where she was allowed to read the full excerpt, un-edited.

  • LawyerHandle 
    This sort of stuff is so disheartening.
    Not only does the media go out of its way to paint an unbalanced picture, it comes from NPR that is paid for by the public’s taxes.  A public who gets disingenuous service for their investment.

  • YankeePapa 
    Great story.

  • toril

    LawyerHandle No doubt because telling the who excerpt would ruin their narrative about Bush.  It would be nice if the media would tell the whole thing and let people make their decisions and opinions with all the information, but can’t see that ever happening in the current environment.

  • Minou_Demimonde

    When the President spoke of the sacrifice of Michael Monsoor, he openly wept. It’s one of the iconic photographs of a presentation of the Medal of Honor, and since it is splashed all over the web, it’s much harder to deny. I have never heard the same depth of love and honor in Obama’s voice, no matter how incredible the action being described. Of course, President Obama has never had the horror and honor of awarding a medal to the parents of a soldier who recently gave his life in such an incredible sacrifice But I still feel that, given the same circumstances, he would have been perfectly professional, beautifully put together and spoken, and far more distant. He would not have wept. Bush wept.