President of True Compassion
By Deborah Tainsh, 1/16/07
Except for the man or woman in uniform that pledges to uphold the constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic, I’ve never been one to be star struck. So when my husband, USMC Sgt Major (Ret) David Tainsh, and I, parents of fallen hero Army Sgt. Patrick Tainsh, received the invitation to meet with President Bush on January 11, at Fort Benning, I told the caller I would be in California that day. I was meeting with other very important people, 100 family members of other fallen heroes. However, I knew my husband would not want to miss meeting our nation’s Commander-in-Chief. But with some flight rearranging that would get me to California by Friday morning to moderate a “family grief circle” and journaling through grief writing workshop, I, my husband, and 24 other Georgia and Alabama families found ourselves in the presence of the leader of the greatest nation in the world.
Families arrived at the Fort Benning officer’s club by noon to be in place by the time Air Force One landed and the base went to shut down. After entering the doors, purses were checked and our bodies scanned by White House police. Secret Service agents stood scattered around the large banquet hall. Any gifts brought for the president had to be handed over to an agent, and no cameras or recording devices were allowed. Photos would later be taken by a White House photographer.
Our Gold Star families, the term given to those of us who have a loved one die in war, received five-star treatment from Fort Benning staff that had worked diligently to gather families for this historic event. A banquet table of finger foods, deserts, and beverages sat at our fingertips. With a three hour wait, the time was spent well with families meeting each other, sharing stories, and providing opportunity for Dave and I to share information about TAPS (Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors of military personnel and Good Grief Camp for Young Survivors) headquartered in Washington, D.C.
As time approached for the President’s arrival to the O Club following his meeting with the troops, we were all organized into three groups and led to three separate rooms. Dave and I were led to the Benning room with 26 other family members representing: Seaman Zachary M. Alday, SFC Victor Anderson, SPC Stephen D. Hiller, SFC David Salie, SPC Justin Johnson, Major Douglas Sloan, SGT Charles Wilkerson, and SPC Jacques Brunson. Seated in a circle of chairs and “love seats,” we learned that this was the first occasion for the President, at his request, to meet with families as a group. The President usually sat in a room as individual families were brought to him.
At 3:50 p.m. a secret service agent announced the President’s entry to our room, the third and last. We all stood in respect as I kept my eyes on the door and watched it slowly open. I wasn’t star struck, but I found myself suddenly in a surreal moment, the momentary disbelief that I and my husband were about to meet with the most powerful leader of the free world. The moment was also surreal because no one there ever wanted to meet our President because a loved one had died in war. I suddenly reaffirmed again the reality that our Patrick was really not coming home again, but I nor my husband were no less proud and I witnessed no negativity among a single other family member.
After walking into the circle, a man of commanding presence, confident and secure, with no arrogant air, the President’s first words were: “Thank you for coming by today. I appreciate your time. I am here to honor your loved ones, America’s heroes. If I had not believed the mission a right and just cause, I would never have sent your loved one into harms way. It’ll be hard for me not to shed tears with you. I’m here as long as you need me the rest of the day to talk, give or accept hugs, and sign anything you’d like for me to sign. Just don’t ask me to sing, because I can’t sing.” With that we all laughed and he chuckled as he turned to the first family near him and they introduced themselves and their son’s name. After chatting a few moments, Mr. Brunson said, “Mr. President, I’d like to say a prayer for you.” Everyone stood as this mild, graceful father held the President’s hand and said a prayer for him, our nation, our troops, and the people of Iraq.
Next, the President spent time with 11 year old Aidan Sloan whose dad died in Afghanistan in October.
Mom Jan Johnson told the President that she belonged to a prayer group that prayed constantly for him. President Bush turned to everyone and said, “I am blessed to be the only leader in the world who is privileged to have the people of his country constantly praying for him. Laura and I feel your prayers, they give us strength. And we thank you.” Then with another bit of humor he said he had often wanted to ask someone like the leader of China if his people ever prayed for him, but then he figured it wouldn’t go over too well. Again we all laughed. And before the President approached Dave and me, Dad Joe Johnson shook the President’s hand again and said, “Sir, I support your decisions. I served in Iraq for a year after our son’s death, we need the troops. We need to complete the mission. It’s worth it.”
After a final hug and handshake with the Johnsons, President Bush stepped in front of us. Dave introduced himself and spoke about Patrick as he locked a handshake, after which the President looked straight into my eyes, asked how I was doing, then gave me, as he had the other moms, a bear hug and kiss on the side of the face. I held in my hands Patrick’s green military issued notebook. The one he had written briefing notes inside, the one he left a 3 page letter in for his family in case he was killed.
“Mr. President,” I said, “Thank you for seeing us. We support you 100%.”
After telling him I had brought a notebook with letters of prayers and support from other Gold Star parents from across the nation, I showed him Patrick’s notebook and looked him directly in the eyes.
“This is the book our son wrote in while in Iraq, and this is the letter he left for us in the event of his death. Mr. President, our son believed in the Iraqi people, in this letter he states that he hopes the Iraqi people will someday experience the same freedoms that he was blessed to experience, that it was an honor to live, fight and die with an American Flag on his shoulder. He tells how he cried for the children because he didn’t have food and water for them. He said they were worth the fight.”
I soon saw President Bush fighting back thick puddles of tears. With his hands entwined behind him, he straightened his shoulders as though to re-compose himself. As my voice began to break and tears moistened my cheeks, I pointed to the last words printed in red on the page, Love, your son, Patrick, and said, “Mr. President, would you please write a note to Patrick. Tell him you won’t let him down.” I then handed the book and a pen to President Bush and he wrote: Patrick, thank you for your courage. I won’t let you down. George W. Bush.
After returning the book to me, I accepted another tremendous hug of sincere compassion, and my husband, with tears in his eyes accepted another handshake and gentle pat on the shoulder. All the while, as with the other families, the White House photographer was snapping photos that we will all eventually receive with the President Bush’s signature. And before walking away from each of us, the President gave us a Presidential Coin and his heartfelt thanks for our sacrifices.
Because Dave and I had a flight to catch from Atlanta to California to meet with other people important to our lives, we had to leave the room before the President spoke with everyone. But later, I heard only positive from the others.
Regarding our journey since the death of our fallen heroes, I have labeled our families the “grieving proud.” Most don’t understand us, but the President did, and his sincere patience and compassion showed. And the strange thing I recall is that I cannot tell you what color his tie was, but I can describe his soft black leather slip-on shoes with thick cushioned soles, which to me holds a metaphor for a world leader who stands secure, comfortable and strong in his convictions to carry the burden of our nation’s safety on his shoulders, to courage to face eye to eye the families of our nation’s fallen heroes.
Author of Heart of a Hawk: One family’s sacrifice and journey toward healing, Deborah resides in Harris County, Ga with her husband.
She is also a volunteer national speaker and peer mentor for TAPS, the Tragedy Assistance Program for survivors of military personnel.
Contact Deborah for speaking engagements at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Back to part one.