Magazine article New York Times Upfront

The Soldiers He Sent into Battle: With His Pen and Paintbrush, Former President George W. Bush Pays Tribute to Wounded Veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars

Magazine article New York Times Upfront

The Soldiers He Sent into Battle: With His Pen and Paintbrush, Former President George W. Bush Pays Tribute to Wounded Veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars

Article excerpt

One of the hardest parts of being president is sending American troops off to war, knowing those men and women could be killed or wounded.

As Commander in Chief of the military, the president also has the unenviable job of consoling the families of fallen soldiers. The raw emotions involved in this task were on display recently when President Trump's condolence call to the widow of a dead soldier led to accusations that Trump was insensitive, which he denies. But these situations are incredibly difficult for all presidents.

Former President George W. Bush made many condolence calls and visits to meet wounded troops. During his presidency (2001-09), he sent tens of thousands of soldiers to fight wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. More than 4,400 Americans died in Iraq and close to 32,000 were wounded. In the Afghanistan war, which is still going on, more than 2,000 have died and another 20,000 have been wounded. Bush's decision to invade Iraq was controversial, and the war there became more unpopular as it dragged on. (It officially ended in 2011.)

Since leaving office, Bush has spent much of his time working to provide support services for veterans and holding competitive sporting events for wounded soldiers through his public service organization, the Bush Institute. Veterans are also the subject of Bush's recent book, Portraits of Courage: A Commander in Chiefs Tnbute to America's Warriors, which contains the president's paintings of wounded soldiers and short essays he wrote about their lives, before and after battle.

"I painted these men and women as a way to honor their sacrifice to the country and to show my respect for their sacrifice and courage," Bush writes.

Following are four essays and portraits by President Bush, adapted from his book.

Juan Carlos Hernandez U.S. army, 2006-11 Lost his right leg to a rocket-propelled grenade

Juan Carlos Hernandez was born in Orizaba, Mexico. At the age of 9, his mother brought Juan and his two brothers to the United States so they could build better lives than she'd had.

"Unfortunately, we didn't have papers, so we crossed the border illegally," Juan says. "I was terrified. I didn't speak a single word of English, and I knew nothing about this place I would come to love and call home."

After graduating from high school in Schulenburg, Texas, Juan joined the Army. "I wanted to be part of something bigger than myself and do something that I would forever be proud of. But for me, the main reason was to give back to the country that had done so much for my family and me," he says.

Juan served in Afghanistan, where he manned a machine gun in the door of a helicopter. On a mission in 2009, a rocket-propelled grenade hit his team's helicopter. Juan lost his right leg in the attack.

He recovered at Brooke Army Medical Center, in Texas, where he was fitted with a prosthetic leg. He started walking again in just three months.

Juan was deeply moved by the care he received throughout his recovery--so moved, in fact, that he is now pursuing his undergraduate degree in kinesiology, the study of the mechanics of body movements. After being on the receiving end of life-changing physical therapy, Juan wants to pay it forward. "I would love to work with children who struggle with disabilities and make their lives better."

Juan is grateful for the opportunity to have served this country--his country. "That's my payback. That's my way of saying thank-you," he says.

He became an American citizen in May 2009. * Juan's story is one example of the countless ways that immigrants make America great. And I am honored and humbled to call Juan Carlos Hernandez my fellow citizen.

Daniel Casara u.s. army, 1994-2008

Both legs crushed when an explosion flipped the vehicle he was in

Danny Casara is a man of many interests. He started playing the drums at age 2. …

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