Former President George W. Bush and his wife, Laura, were honored Sunday at the National Constitution Center with the $100,000 Liberty Medal, even as Veterans Day emotions ran hot and noisy over U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
About 30 protesters — veterans and others — disrupted the 90-minute ceremony with whistles and sirens that could be heard over speeches by former Vice President Joe Biden and other dignitaries inside a heated tent filled with 1,000 people at Fifth and Arch Streets.
Protesters chanted, "No awards for endless wars," blaming Bush for the long military engagements after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. One woman was escorted from the ceremony by U.S. National Park rangers for interrupting a speaker.
Without acknowledging the racket, Bush said in his acceptance speech that he has spoken with many veterans over the years and "most of them would say that they were proud to serve and they would do it again." He called veterans "tremendous national assets." Bush holds annual mountain biking rides on his Crawford, Texas, ranch with wounded vets.
The center said it was awarding the medal to Bush — who was president between 2001 and 2009 — and his wife for their Texas charitable mission helping wounded post-Sept. 11 veterans get back on their feet through healing and career training. The Bushes said they would donate the $100,000 to further the work of the George W. Bush Institute and its Military Service Initiative.
Wisecracking, Bush said that in addition to the Liberty Medal itself, he was "proud to follow in my dad's footsteps — once again." His father, former President George H.W. Bush, received the medal along with former President Bill Clinton in 2006.
Bush paid tribute to former Sen. John McCain, a fellow Republican who died in August, saying that "this is a man who had been to the darkest of places as a prisoner of war."
Laura Bush said in her acceptance speech that more attention had to be paid to the wounded-veteran caregivers, including wives. She said there were more than four million veterans of the post-Sept. 11 era.
Biden, a Democrat who served under former President Barack Obama, presented the medal to Bush. They often disagreed while Bush was in the White House and Biden was a prominent senator. But "I always respected the president," Biden added.
Biden noted that 6,842 Americans had been killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and 52,732 wounded, many with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Matt Howard, 35, of the group About Face: Veterans Against the War, said the protesters made the noise to disrupt what they perceive as Bush's attempt to rehabilitate his reputation and to bring attention to the long wars on terrorism.
Celeste Zappala of Mount Airy stood outside the tent holding a photo of her son, Sgt. Sherwood Baker, 30, who she said died in Baghdad in April 2004 while searching for weapons of mass destruction.
"I am here because I find it abominable that Bush is getting the Liberty Medal," Zappala said. "And he has never apologized for starting the war in Iraq based on lies."
Other Liberty Medal winners over the last decade include former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, movie director Steven Spielberg, boxer Muhammad Ali, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and girls' rights activist Malala Yousafzai. Financial sponsors of the event include real estate investor Ira Lubert, the law firm Stradley Ronon, LLP, and the Citizens Bank Charitable Foundation.