George W. Bush’s new book Portraits of Courage. A Commander in Chief’s Tribute to America’s Warriors is an artist and former President’s salute to the armed forces -to the men and women who serve selflessly to protect the freedoms that we hold so dear. I am a big fan of artists. All types- pottery, fashion, sculptures, and paintings. My favorite style of paintings is impressionist. I love Monet, Degas, Van Gogh, Manet, you get the picture. I always assumed art is something that you have in you as part of your DNA – either you have it or you don’t, or you have a little. But I never imagined that one could take up art at the age of 66 and become not only a professional painter but also an outstanding one at that. This is what our 43rd President George W. Bush has accomplished. His paintings are amazing. They speak volumes, they communicate a story, and most of all they look like any of the impressionist painters out there. I have to say, it’s very impressive.
Portraits of Courage is a collection of portraits painted by George W. Bush of service men and women who have overcome immense personal combat injuries to live life to the fullest and some even continue to serve in the armed forces.
All the portraits are done in the impressionist style of paintings, and are painted so beautifully that when I read the stories of the combat men and women I could hear their voices and feel their story in the paintings.
The book has just eight pages that are not devoted to the soldiers featured. Two pages for Laura Bush, First Lady of the United States (2001-2009) who writes about how her husband picked up painting after retiring from being President of the United States for eight years. There is a two page Foreword by General Peter Pace, United States Marine Corps (retired) & Sixteenth Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who gives his perspective on the soldiers who serve so selflessly and on the portraits that Bush has painted, and there are four pages from George W. Bush which recounts in his own words the story of how he decided to pick up painting at the age of 66, despite having never painted in his life!
Bush attributes the urge to paint after reading Winston Churchill’s essay titled Painting as a Pastime. Bush says he figured if Winston Churchill whom he admired immensely for his WWII accomplishments could find solace and a new life after politics in learning to paint, than he could give it a try too. To quote George W. Bush “For the first time in my life I picked up a paint brush that wasn’t meant for drywall. I selected a tube of white paint and another labeled Burnt Umber. While I wasn’t aware at the time that it was a color, I liked the name, which reminded me of Mother’s cooking.”
Bush hired renowned Texas art teachers and painters to teach him how to paint starting with learning the color spectrum to learning various painting techniques. He started off painting landscapes and flowers, then moved on to painting their pets on their ranch in Texas, and then advanced to painting portraits. Bush moved on to painting world leaders and he became so good at it that at one point he had painted over 25 world leaders and people of influence. In my opinion that is the hardest technique to learn, to paint people.
Portraits of Courage has 94 portraits of service men and women, each with a short story of the soldier’s injury and their road to recovery, and each and every story is inspirational, motivational, and makes one appreciate all the sacrifices that military personnel make to protect this country.
I read all 94 of the soldier’s stories and appreciated every single portrait I saw. Yes, I read every single soldier’s story, I felt that is the least I could do given the sacrifices they have made to make my country a safe place to live in. I did see a pattern in all the stories, they all had three basic underlying messages:
1) Never give up, no matter what life throws at you. These service personnel have lost their legs, their arms, their hearing, some have bullets still lodged in their body, others have had severe PTSD (post traumatic stress syndrome), some have constant nightmares of the horrors of war they have seen, and yet despite all these hurdles, their message is – never give up – on life, on living, and living productively. These men and women embody that message tried and true!
2) The second overlying message that I picked up is the power of the great outdoors and physical activity. There is so much research and countless articles on the benefits of physical activity on our health and well-being. Interestingly, every single soldier’s story in this book has an outdoor element and physical activity as the soldiers’ path to recovery. It makes sense, given that we know when we exercise endorphins get released making us happy, which lead to better mental health. This is true with regards to spending time outdoors as well. I posted an article a while back titled A Natural High on the power of the outdoors on our health and well-being, and I cited many research studies that have proven that when people spend time outside in nature – their physical and mental state develops a positive “natural high” that leads to a better state of mind. To quote from my previous article A Natural High “Biophilia is the concept that we as humans have a biologically based attraction to nature, and our quality of life is to an extent dependent on how we interact with it. That is why when we are outside gardening, walking, or hiking, our mental and physical state is more at peace.”
3) Another message these soldiers communicate is to embrace the power of people. By allowing their doctors and nurses, their spouses and loved ones, and the multitude of veterans organizations and fellow soldiers to help in the healing process, by allowing the power of human kindness to help them, these soldiers found renewed interest in living with their handicaps and living life with a gusto and positive attitude that is admirable.
I wish I could summarize all of the 94 soldiers inspirational stories in this post, but alas I cannot. Every soldier’s story has a motivational quote straight from the soldier’s heart. I mean, are these soldiers speechwriters or what? Their messages of hope and encouragement are contagious. I jotted down a few of their uplifting thoughts so you can see how they can be inspiration for all of us. Let me start off with this amazing story of Israel Del Toro Jr.
Master Sergeant Israel Del Toro Jr. United States Air Force. Del Toro Jr. had this to say about his journey: “I am the master of my fate. I’m the captain of my soul. Never quit. Never ****ing quit!”
Master Sergeant Israel Del Toro Jr. was hit in a roadside bomb in Afghanistan and was in a medically induced coma for almost a month. His body was severely burned over 80% of his body. His fingers and nose were almost gone, and the doctor’s gave him a 15% chance of surviving. But his wife stayed positive and prayed for a miracle. A few months later Del Toro came out of his coma but his wounds were so bad that to quote him “I looked like a monster.” On top of his wounds, the doctors told him he would never walk or breathe on his own again. But Del Toro had a three year old son, and to quote him from the book “…I vowed then and there to recover and lead a constructive life.” This man underwent more than 100 surgeries and is now the first airman with a disability rating of 100% to re-enlist as a first airman in the Air Force.
Staff Sergeant Scott P. Lilley. United States Air Force. Scott has a piece of shrapnel lodged in the left side of his brain, affecting his short term memory, yet this is Scott’s attitude: “It’s not the end of the world. Keep a smile on your face. New doors will open and guide you in the right direction.”
Sergeant First Class Michael R. Rodriguez. United States Army. “I was able to assist foreign soldiers in defending their homelands. I had the opportunity to watch a little girl go to school for the first time because of the security I provided.”
Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Gade. United States Army. “Don’t let people tell you that you’re broken.”
Dan Gade was seriously injured by an IED. He returned from combat with skull fracture, a broken neck and back, and lost his entire right leg. He has undergone more than 40 surgeries to date, and today rides mountain bikes and participated in Iron Man and Race Across America events. For the last few years he has taught Public Policy to cadets at West Point and writes extensively on veterans policy.
Lance Corporal Timothy John Lang, United States Marine Corps. “We all have battles to conquer in life, and that’s how we are judged: by how we pick ourselves up and move forward.”
Staff Sergeant Spencer C. Milo. United States Army. “When I found out that my wife was pregnant with my daughter, I remembered an emotion I had overseas. In order to take care of others, you have to be able to take care of yourself. It gave me a new and reinvigorated motivator to get better and allow myself to heal.”
Specialist Juan Carlos Hernandez. “I wanted to be part of something bigger then myself and do something 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.”
George W. Bush describes Juan as: “A selfless soul with a servant’s heart. Juan’s story is one example of the countless ways that immigrants make America great. And I am honored and humble to call Juan Carlos Hernandez my fellow citizen.”
Sergeant Daniel Casara. United States Army. Mr. Casara had an antitank mine flip his tank and almost lost both his legs. To quote Casara “ I had to learn how to walk. The Falling, the getting back up – it just became a way of life.” President Bush nicknamed Casara The Preacher because he was so good with motivational messages. To quote Casara: “To my fellow brothers and sisters in arms, I say, stay encouraged and never let anyone tell you that your outcome will be determined by your situation. If someone is down, reach out hard to help them up. You will heal faster in the process.” Is this an inspirational message or what? Heck yeah, Sergeant Daniel Casara has every right to be called The Preacher!
Staff Sergeant Dan Nevins. United States Army, Army National Guard. “It was yoga and meditation that have helped me heal completely and find new purpose.” Dan Nevis is now on the road most of the year teaching and inspiring others to embrace the healing power of yoga.
Master Sergeant Scott Neil. United States Army. Scott Neil served twenty-four years in the Army and conducted Special Forces missions in Kenya, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Pakistan, Oman, and Yemen. The fighting took a toll on Scott’s mental state and he was diagnosed with severe PTSD. Scott describes his recovery in this way “The tendency to be angry and distant every day is normal. Eventually, I learned that the outdoors provides the best therapy. The greatest adventure was a ten-day hundred-mile horse-and-pack train through the Thorofare of Yellowstone.”
Master Sergeant Roque Urena. United States Air Force. “I joined the Air Force because I wanted to travel the world and at the same time serve the country that became part of my life.”
Sergeant Matthew S. Ayers. United States Navy Reserve, United States Army National Guard, United States Army Reserve. Matthews Ayers was a Naval Reservist and a combat medic with the 19th Special Forces Group. On one of the deployments he was severely injured suffering from traumatic brain injury, hearing loss, and shrapnel to the hip and a torn disk on his back. Matt recovered from his physical wounds but suffered with severe PTSD. He is getting treatment for his PTSD and says that another part of his healing comes from “outdoor hobbies like mountain biking, kayaking, backpacking, and fishing, especially when his wife and daughter come along. Family time relaxes me, which melts the stress away and works as therapy.”
Petty Officer Third Class Chris Goehner. United States Navy. Chris deployed as a Navy corpsman and saw more than 1200 trauma patients and assisted with as many as 450 operations in combat. Seeing that many patients took a toll on Chris and he was diagnosed with PTS. Chris describes his nightmares in this way “Nighttime is when a lot of our trauma cases came in. If you slept, that’s usually when bad things happened.” Chris suffered from insomnia and survivors guilt. He got help from a fellow Marine who gave him the chance to release his guilt. Another part of Chris’s recovery came from thinking of his experiences and contributions in a positive light. Chris also started to participate in marathons and triathlons as therapy. Today Chris continues to serve in South Africa where “he works to give children in vulnerable populations meals, tutoring, and Bible education.”
These are just a sampling of the beautiful positive stories that are in this book. It is a quick read as each soldier’s story is just two pages along with a portrait of the soldier. Some of the narratives tug at your heart, not in a sad way by any means, but more from just appreciating the stories. A few stories I read made me choke up with tears, tears of joy – we really do live in a beautiful world – if we can embrace it – the great outdoors, the people around us, people of different faiths and cultures – we truly can lead a happy and fulfilling life no matter what life throws at us – this is the message I got out of this book.
Pick up a copy of this outstanding artist’s rendition of our soldiers and warriors. All net proceeds from the book Portraits of Courage. A Commander in Chief’s Tribute to America’s Warriors by George W. Bush goes to the George W. Bush Presidential Center, which is a nonprofit organization whose main purpose is to help post 9/11 veterans and their families make successful transition to civilian life by addressing the issues of veterans’ wellness and post traumatic stress and injury issues.
You can find a copy of the book at your local bookstores and on Amazon.
And lastly, to all you artist’s out there I loved this quote that George W. Bush shared in this book from Winston Churchill’s essay Painting as a Pastime: “Happy are the painters, for they shall not be lonely. Light and color, peace and hope, will keep them company to the end.”