My first encounter with George H.W. Bush, leader of the free world? At a barbecue for press photographers on the South Lawn of the White House in 1989. As we chatted, out came First Dog Millie. He didn't just greet her. He started to roll around on the grass with her. Clearly this man – this president, who died on Friday at the age of 94 – was different.
Later, I helped organize his appearance before the Congressional Medal of Honor Society in Philadelphia. But then, Operation Desert Storm began. We assumed he would cancel. No. He wasn't going to let his fellow veterans down. On Jan. 22, 1991, this commander-in-chief wrote to me, "I am heartened that so many Americans are praying for our brave service men and women and for their families." He told me later that sending young people into harm's way was the most heart-wrenching decision he ever had to make.
His example of service inspired me to volunteer at Walter Reed, where I met many wounded warriors and the moms who cared for them 24/7. When I next saw President Bush in February 2012, I told him I wanted to write a book about these brave young men and women and their mothers. "I'm so proud of you; go for it," he said. The next thing I knew, his chief of staff, Jean Becker, called me to tell me that President Bush wanted to write the foreword to the book, even though he had officially "retired" from such projects. "Good luck with The Mighty Moms of Walter Reed," he wrote to me on Nov. 6, 2013. "a truly wonderful tribute to the unsung heroes of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts — our nation's mothers."
Of course, he didn't just send me a letter, but also invited 10 wounded warriors and their moms to Maine after the book was released. He was recovering from a fall that left him in a neck brace and in pain, but still wanted to show his support for these heroes. It was a life-changing visit for all of us, on that beautiful August day at Walker's Point. And, to the group's delight, in addition to "41" and Barbara Bush, George W. and Laura Bush were also on hand to greet us.
President Bush 41 was in a wheelchair, and so were some of the vets, who wheeled right up to this former commander-in-chief to shake his hand. Others walked over to the president cautiously on their prosthetic limbs. Barbara Bush was using a walker, but, like Laura Bush, made her way around the group to welcome her guests. George W. made a point of taking each veteran and mom aside to hear their stories and deliver a personal message of support and encouragement. Then all four Bushes patiently posed for pictures with each warrior and his or her mom, as well as a host of group shots.
After about an hour, with just a little bit of encouragement from Bush 43, one young warrior, who had lost both of his legs after stepping on an IED in Afghanistan, slowly, painstakingly, lowered himself on one prosthetic knee – vets on either side of him to keep him steady – and proposed to his girlfriend. There wasn't a dry eye in the house. Luckily she said yes, and was cheered on by two former presidents and first ladies. "Every commander-in-chief before and after me would agree that working with our military is the single biggest privilege of being president of the United States," President Bush 41 wrote in the foreword to Unbreakable Bonds.
After we left, I was told that 41 loved spending time with our nation's heroes. But the visit wore him out physically, and he spent the rest of the afternoon napping.
And if that weren't enough, thanks to his chief of staff, when our next book came out, 41 and Mrs. Bush insisted that we come to Kennebunkport, Maine, again along with a new group of wounded warriors and their service and companion animals. Despite his condition's deteriorating, he wanted to be wheeled down his long driveway to personally welcome the new group of veterans along with their service dogs, screech owls and even a pot belly pig. In fact, one of the two owls actually had an accident on 41's pants, to which Mrs. Bush replied, "Don't worry, George has plenty of of other pants."
I have traded so many notes over the years from this kind and generous man who touched, mentored and inspired so many. Ironically, this weekend it was my plan to write 41 a letter, letting him know how much he means to me. Here's what I would have said:
"Dear President Bush, the lessons I have learned from you and Mrs. Bush are etched in my soul. They drive me to help others, especially those who, like you, have served our country. I have learned to care about all people, and when I disagree with their views, try to do so with grace and dignity. You do the right thing, you never give up, and you write the best letters. I love you, Dava."