John Fuller: Retired Army Sergeant Juan Velasquez shares how honored he was to have his portrait painted by Former President George W. Bush.
Retired Army Sergeant Juan Velazquez: The painting alone shows me dedication, how much dedication he has towards us. Anybody can take a picture and frame it. Mr. President took his time and drew each one of us. That’s hard work. I just got the picture yesterday and I was looking at each one of us and he not only painted us, but he painted every single one of our faces show[s] some type of emotion. That’s something to admire and I feel very honored that I was one of the faces he painted.
End of Clip
John: Sergeant Velasquez is one of just many members of the United States military captured in paintings by Former President Bush in his new book, Portraits of Courage. This is “Focus on the Family. Your host is Focus president, Jim Daly. I’m John Fuller and today a special conversation with the former President about his appreciation for our military and his efforts to support wounded warriors.
Jim Daly: John, since President Bush left office in 2009, he has dedicated himself to a number of initiatives at the Bush Center here in Dallas, where we’re taping right now. And really the thrust of it is to give back to others.
You know, I love my wife, Jean, when we’re watching a sports event or something like that, she wants to know the soul of the men we’re watching on the gridiron, right? She wants to hear their heartbeat. That’s what we’re gonna do today. You’re gonna hear the heart of a wonderful former President, who did so much to protect us, yet carries that burden of what has happened in the military.
John: And again, his new book is Portraits of Courage, and the subtitle really reflects what you just said, Jim, A Commander-in-Chief’s Tribute to America’s Warriors.
Jim: Mr. President, it’s great to have you back to “Focus on the Family.”
Former President George W. Bush: Thank you, yeah, thanks. Welcome to Texas.
Jim: We do want to talk about your new book, Portraits of Courage. What inspired you to move in this direction? I mean, did you paint at all?
Former President Bush: I’ve never painted. (Laughter) and always [have] not nearly appreciated art like I should have. I was really agnostic. Now I’m evangelistic, toward art.
Jim: What does it do for you?
Former President Bush: Well, first of all, five years ago I was getting “antsy.” You know, post-presidency you know, it’s a radical change from being scheduled and work, you know, issues coming at you right and left every day.
And I wrote a book, two books, Decision Points and Portrait of a Father. And we’ve got these programs here at the Institute. I’m trying to stay fit, and it wasn’t enough. And by chance, I read Winston Churchill’s essay, “Painting as a Pastime.”
As a great admirer of Churchill, his words meant a lot to me. He painted and was a good painter. And I said, you know, what the heck. If this guy can paint, I can paint. (Laughter)
Jim: Is that Texan, or presidential? I don’t know which.
Former President Bush: It’s true. (Laughter) And I guess you gotta be a pretty confident guy to run for President in the first place.
Jim: I would think.
Former President Bush: And I was pretty confident in taking on something that was totally foreign to me. So, I hired instructors, and off I went. And I’ve been painting every day since, nearly every day since for five years.
Jim: Now was Mrs. Bush happy about this?
Former President Bush: Yeah, she was (Laughter) until I spread the phthalo blue paint on a white bedspread.
Jim: You didn’t; you didn’t.
Former President Bush: What, no, kidding, (Laughter) but no, she’s thrilled. We build a studio in our house, built the studio at the ranch and I retreat to the studios, and I painted all kinds of subjects, including the one we’re talking about in the book, Portraits of Courage.
Jim: Well, let me ask you, in terms of that military connection. I mean, you seem to have such a unique connection there with the military. Describe that. What moves your heart about the military that allows you or requests of your heart to get engaged with them the way that you do?
Former President Bush: Well, a couple things. One, I’m a product of Vietnam Era. And that was an ugly, ugly period. You know, there was a draft. A lot of people didn’t want you to go in the draft. The war was improperly explained. The vets weren’t treated well when they came home.
And we get attacked and I said, we’re gonna defend the country and millions volunteered, millions. So, being a commander-in-chief of such men and women was a high honor. Secondly, you know, I’m often asked the toughest decisions that I made as President and of course, it was putting troops in combat–
Former President Bush: –knowing full well that some would be injured and some would die. And as a result of that, I vowed that for the rest of my life, I would help vets. I hope people realize that when I was President, we gave those in the military all they needed to do their jobs—
Former President Bush: –including a strategy, and then relying upon the military commanders to put the tactics in place and support ’em and take the politic heat if there was any, and there was. And so, in the post-presidency, you know, I decided to dedicate the rest of my life to helping the vets.
Jim: That is so amazing.
Former President Bush: Well, you shouldn’t be surprised.
Jim: Well, but no.
Former President Bush: When you’ve got a kinship it’s hard to describe. My decisions, their decisions, they’re volunteering. My decision to put ’em in combat, co-joined us in a very unique way and couple that with my admiration for them, there is a special kinship.
Jim: Yeah, but it takes that recognition on your part to say this is special. A lot of men walk away from that role as President.
Former President Bush: You know, I don’t know about that.
Jim: They don’t maintain that connection.
Former President Bush: Yeah, well, I can’t speak for others. I can just tell you, it’s really special for me.
Former President Bush: And I think if people were to buy this book, they would see that I put a lot of emotion into each painting.
Jim: Well, let’s get there. The other thing, I mean, really since you stepped out of the office, you do the bike ride. You do the golf event—
Former President Bush: Right.
Jim: –to help the veterans. I mean, you do much more than paint a portrait.
Former President Bush: Well, to be perfectly frank with you, the bike event and the golf event helps me, as well. (Laughter)
John: You participate in those, don’t you? (Laughter) You enjoy that, don’t you?
Former President Bush: I’m the heckler in chief of the golf and I try to lead the pelotons in the bike ride and it’s really fun. I mean, it’s a wonderful moment. But there’s a reason why I do this, not just for enjoyment, but to help build a network of vets, and to then draw attention to what we’re doing here at the Bush Center to help our vets, so that others will see a clear path and a good strategy as to how to help ’em.
Jim: Now that is so good. Now I gotta ask you, unlike Gerald Ford, you never hit anybody on the golf course, have you?
Former President Bush: Yeah, I occasionally hit the golf ball itself. (Laughter)
Jim: Listen, I want to play a little bit of a montage from some of the soldiers that you have painted.
Former President Bush: Okay, sure.
Jim: And we were able to capture their audio clips.
Former President Bush: Well, thank you.
Jim: Our team was able to contact them. Beautiful words have been expressed. Let’s listen to ’em now.
Clips – Montage:
Former Marine Corporal David Smith: This is this man’s personal mission that he really is invested and determined to help provide transition and to help heal the invisible wounds of war for the people that he’s helping.
Retired Army Sergeant Danny Casara: I also think he’s funny. He’s a very, very funny individual and even if you don’t laugh at his jokes, he’ll laugh at his own and you just see the joy in his heart and the peace that it’s in his life.
Retired Army Sergeant Juan Velazquez: I believe Mr. President is not only giving back, but I believe he’s doin’ it because it’s comin’ out of his heart and he’s a strong man of faith and he’s got God in his heart.
Danny: I’m always honored to be able to call him friend, but most importantly, a brother in Christ and always, of course, a former commander-in-chief.
David: And I think that it’s really impressive that he has such a commitment to his faith and to his values. And whether he knows it or not, that inspires a lot of people.
End of Clips – Montage
Jim: That’s good. That was former Marine Corporal David Smith, Retired Army Sergeant Danny Casara and Retired Army Sergeant Juan Velazquez and they made some incredible comments there, Mr. President about how they feel about you and your faith and you as a commander in chief.
Former President Bush: Well, that was very nice of ’em and I appreciate that. I’ve gotten to know those three, as well as almost everybody in this book to know well. And I admire them a lot and it was very kind of them to say that.
Jim: Well, and especially there, Retired Army Sergeant Juan Velasquez and he survived six IED explosions, a leg injury, a traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress. What do you remember specifically about him?
Former President Bush: Well, he’s a little withdrawn at first when I first met him, but when he became relaxed, it became much easier to talk to him. He was dealing with some serious issues, post-traumatic stress. In his case, his faith helped him a lot. It doesn’t work in every case, just so you know. I mean, there [are] all kinds of paths to recovery.
Former President Bush: Golf helped Juan a lot. And I recently saw Juan at a golf reunion we had, with what we call Club 43. These are the vets who participated before and his spirit seemed to be very good. And you know, people just gotta understand, there’s an ongoing issue for these troops.
And the question is, how can we help them? And it first starts with the troops wanting to be helped. They have to make up their mind, I can deal with this. And one way to help them make up their mind is through peer-to-peer counseling. These guys come and play golf, and they sit and chat with each other. You know, I’ve had this issue. I’ve had that issue. They’re much more comfortable talking among themselves than to some stranger—
Former President Bush: –to some person that they really don’t know, because they’re fearful that, you know, people can’t possibly understand how they think. But a fellow vet can help them. So, peer-to-peer counseling works, and one of the things we’re doing at the Bush Center is identifying those programs that work and helping vets get into those programs. And thirdly, there are different avenues.
Once they say, “I want help,” there’re different avenues to get help. Some of it’s psychology. Some of it’s religion. Some of it’s art. A lot of it’s exercise. I mean, there [are] all kinds of ways for people to start gettin’ their frame of reference right.
Former President Bush: And now I want to thank you for dropping the D in PTS, because we here, we don’t view it as a disorder. We view it as an injury.
Former President Bush: And we want our troops to view it as an injury, because that means that there’s a way forward for them.
John: It’s not a life-debilitating condition. It affects them for life.
Former President Bush: This experience , it does, but it’s not life debilitating. Here’s what I say, and this is important for Americans to know. These troops are a tremendous national asset for the future of our country. There are men and women who have gotten a Ph.D. in life at a very young age.
And so, what lessons have they learned? They’ve learned teamwork, courage, stress, how to deal with stress under difficult conditions, service to others. These are noble traits and to the extent they need help, we need to give them help.
Jim: Another audio connection here that we have is from Marine Corporal Dave Smith. He was another man that you touched deeply. Let’s listen to what he has to share.
David: It definitely took a while to address that. It was extremely painful. I think that injuring another Marine or soldier is probably one of the most painful things that you can do in combat. I got out of the military in 2007. I lost a friend to suicide in 2011 who was an extremely friend of mine. That hurt a lot and at the same time I was kind of trying to deal with the stuff from Iraq. I had gotten away from the type of person that I really am. I mean, I was, you know, drinking a lot and cheating and all that other kind of stuff. I didn’t have very strong moral values.
And I felt like I didn’t care about anything at all. I was just in a really bad place and I decided to grab a shotgun one night and see if I really did care about anything and put a shotgun barrel in my mouth. And it was a really rough experience and I think that you don’t really know you’re gonna find yourself in that situation until you’re there.
And when you’re there, all it is a couple of ounces of pressure on a trigger that makes all the difference in the world. So, the first thing that I did was determine that I really need to turn my life back to God, because I sure wasn’t doin’ a good job of driving it myself, and that I needed to ask other people who I respected for help.
And so, I signed up for a year-long Christian missions trip and I, you know, got back into the Word and I decided to embrace faith in a different way. But once I started to get back into it, it is without a doubt, the turning point of bringing my life back around to where it is today.
End of Clip
Jim: Oh, that’s former Marine Corporal David Smith at 19-years-old. I mean, he was going through these kinds of struggles.
Former President Bush: Yeah, an amazing guy. When he talked about puttin’ a shotgun in his mouth, he said that in front of a crowd of strangers in Amarillo, Texas. We had a back ride in Palo Dura Canyon. He applied. He’s a great athlete, by the way, and we asked these vets to stand up in front of total strangers and talk about their issues, and his mom was there. And he’s talkin’ about puttin’ a shotgun in his mouth, and I mean, there was like total silence.
Former President Bush: But it turns out that, you know, testifying like he did is a way, is part of the path to healing. The other thing that’s notable about Dave’s experience is that, when you serve somebody else, try to make somebody else’s life better or recognize there are people who’ve got worse circumstances than you do, it helps in recovery.
And so, Dave worked for a faith-based group and he also worked, I think for Team Rubicon, which is a peer-to-peer counseling. You know, it was either fellow vets out serving and they could talk among themselves, and so his recovery is quite remarkable.
And I painted him in such a way as to show a fierce determination. I put him by an academic tower, because he had nearly, I think he failed out, or came close to failing. He went back to school and got his degree, took advantage of the G.I. Bill and did very well academically, as well as psychologically.
John: Former President George W. Bush with us on “Focus on the Family,” as recorded at the Bush Center in Dallas. His new book is called Portraits of Courage and features a collection of incredible stories and paintings that Mr. Bush has done, honoring the men and women who served courageously in the Armed Forces and many of them suffering serious injuries. Order your copy of that book and get a CD of this broadcast when you call 800-A-FAMILY. Oro stop by www.focusonthefamily.com/radio to get the book, a CD and a download, as well.
And make a generous donation to this ministry today of any amount and we’ll send a complimentary copy of Portraits of Courage to you. It’s our way of saying thank you for supporting the work of Focus on the Family.
Let’s go ahead and return to the conversation as former President Bush talks about how many veterans find healing and recovery through faith in Christ.
End of Program Break
Former President Bush: You know, I found Christianity to be a great path out of the valley. To me, it works very well.
Former President Bush: To Dave Smith, it works. To Juan Velasquez, it works. To Danny Casara, it works. There [are] a lot of examples where it does work, and part of the purpose of the book and part of the purpose of this radio interview is to say to a vet out there, you know, here’s one way.
Former President Bush: So, we went to a gym yesterday where there’s, you know, a couple of troops there. There [are] a lot of troops there that lost both legs. One guy lost both legs and an arm and they’re dealing with serious PTS and physical disability and yet, they’re, you know, exercising and sweating and turning over big tires, and it’s all part of a healing. And it builds self-esteem. And one of the guys said, “Listen, you know, God’s helped me.” And so, my only point is, that the more we can expose success stories, the likelier it is that some vet will hear and say, “I’ll try this avenue.”
Jim: Absolutely and when you talk about those paths, you’re talking about the paths out of pain, obviously.
Former President Bush: Paths out of pain, paths out of the valley. You know, paths out of darkness, of dealing with you know, war. It’s very hard for us sitting here who didn’t wear the uniform during this period of time, to relate.
Jim: Oh, without a doubt.
Former President Bush: And that’s the important lesson. People want to help, but there’s effective help. And effective help is to find peer-to-peer counseling groups that work and to find healing centers that work.
Jim: Sitting as a war President, that’s unique. Not many Presidents have that thrust upon them. But as a Christian in that role, looking back, how did your faith help you in those tough times?
Former President Bush: Well, first of all, you know, if you pray for guidance and mean it and comfort, you’ll get it. There was a real conflict for some. I mean, how can you be a Christian and commit troops to war where innocents may lose their life? And the answer is, the calling of September the 11th was to protect innocent people, starting with Americans. That’s the main job of the President.
Former President Bush: And war’s unbelievably difficult. I understand that, but we were dealing with people that would not sit at a negotiating table. They were interested in one thing, and that was the destruction of human life.
Secondly, and I believe this came from my religion, that there is a universality of freedom, I believe a gift from an Almighty is the ability to be free and raise your children in peace. And that stands in stark contrast to the ideology of those who murder. You say, wait a minute. You either do it the way we want to do it, or we’ll kill you—
Former President Bush: –or we’ll subjugate you to unspeakable horrors. In other words, it was the concept of human dignity that I feel we stand for and that all life is precious, and every human being has worth. Those are universal values. They’re not American values. They’re universal in scope.
Jim: Made in the image of God.
Former President Bush: Yeah. And therefore, to defend those values, and again, I repeat, I understood the cost, and I tried to do things diplomatically, but they didn’t work, because we’re dealing with people who didn’t share those values.
Jim: Does your dad in what he went through in World War II, which many know the story, but some won’t know the story–maybe you can give us a little bit of that.
Former President Bush: Sure.
Jim: But did that inspire you, as well?
Former President Bush: Well, it inspired me, you know. It’s obviously a different inspiration, you know, than looking somebody in the eye and saluting them.
Jim: Right, but even as a boy you saw your dad. You heard the stories of your father being a war veteran and a pilot who was shot down.
Former President Bush: Yeah, he didn’t talk much about it and I didn’t know all that much about it frankly until he ran for President. And all that, of course, became very public. And then he talked about it more than he ever did when I was a kid.
I was fully aware of his service at 18-years-old. He got out of high school and went to the war and become a very young Navy fighter pilot and was shot down over the island of Chichi Jima. He got out, and the two crewmen died. What I didn’t know was that he stayed in touch with their relatives. I didn’t know that he invited their relatives to the White House. I didn’t know that he thought about ’em almost every day of his life.
I did know he got rescued by a submarine. I’ve had more people say, I was on that submarine when we rescued your father, than were actually on the submarine. (Laughter) Yeah, I was aware of that and admired that greatly.
John: Mr. President, your parents are in their 90’s and they’ve been married an amazingly long time. There aren’t many couples that make it to what, is it 72 years now?
Former President Bush: Yeah, it’s more than 70, ’cause that’s how old I am.
John: Okay. (Laughter) That’s how you remember it. (Laughter)
Former President Bush: Yeah.
John: How are they doing in terms of the marriage relationship and how does that give you some perhaps inspiration or insights on how you and Laura relate to each other?
Former President Bush: Well, of course, it’s inspiring to see two people who fell in love at age, like 17 and 18, you know, remain in love. And they’ve been through a lot, but their message is “love endures.”
Former President Bush: And you know, it’s a remarkable relationship.
Jim: Let me ask you this final question.
Former President Bush: Sure.
Jim: Billy Graham inscribed in a Bible that he gave to you, Philippians 1:6—
Former President Bush: Yeah.
Jim: –which says, “Being confident of this, that He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” What does that mean to you?
Former President Bush: Well, first of all, the fact that Billy sent me a Bible.” This is a period of time when my walk was a little shaky. And by chance, if there’s such a thing as “by chance,” I saw Billy in Kennebunkport, Maine. And my dad and mom invited Billy up. And I was drinkin’ pretty, you know, I wasn’t a knee- walkin’ drunk, but I was drinkin’. And Billy sought me out, and we started talking.
And it wasn’t any hectoring, no lecturing. It was just this kinda gentle soul and then he sent me this Bible. I didn’t ask him to send me the Bible. He sent me the Bible and pretty plain language. I forgot the version, but it’s like, you know, Bible 101. It’s certainly not the King James Version (Laughter), which can be hard to understand. And he put that inscription in there and it meant a lot to me. So, it caused me to want to read the Bible.
And I had taken, you know, a Bible, Community Bible Study when I was in Midland right about the same time that I met Billy and it all worked together, and I’ve still got that Bible by my bed.
Former President Bush: And so, the fact that Billy took time to send me the Bible meant a lot.
Jim: What year was that?
Former President Bush: You know.
Jim: Back in the ’80’s?
Former President Bush: Yeah, ’80’s.
Jim: In the ’80’s.
Former President Bush: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, ’cause I quit drinkin’ in ’86 around my 40th birthday, so this was probably ’85.
Jim: Yeah, wow, you know, for him and all the Presidents, think of that.
Former President Bush: Yeah.
Jim: He didn’t know you would become President.
Former President Bush: No.
Jim: But he took time to [speak with you].
Former President Bush: Of all people, nobody knew I’d become an artist.
Jim: Yeah, right. (Laughter) Well, Mr. President, this has been so wonderful to speak with you.
Former President Bush: Well, thank you all for payin’ attention to these vets.
Former President Bush: That’s the most important thing.
Jim: And I appreciate your persistence to remind the nation about the contribution that the military makes and the sacrifice that they make for our freedoms. So few of us actually ever have that experience. We don’t understand what they go through.
Former President Bush: Yeah, that’s right. The thing about this period of time, which is very positive, Jim, is that the country wants to help our vets.
Former President Bush: Unlike after Vietnam, there’s this huge spirit whether or not people agree with the decisions I made or not, they want to help our vets. And the question is, are we doing it effectively? And so, at the Bush Center, where people can [find help]. If a vet’s listening, they can get to go to www.bushcenter.org and look at ways we help vets. One way is a road map to help find employment.
Jim: Yeah, that’s wonderful.
Former President Bush: Another way is to read about the strategy we’ve discussed on the radio program, about post-traumatic stress and TBI [Traumatic Brain Injury].
Jim: And we’re engaged in those helps, as well and people can get a copy of your book, Portrait of Courage at the Focus on the Family’s website.
Former President Bush: Thank you.
Jim: We’ll have that available, and as you said, the proceeds go to help the veterans.
Former President Bush: That’s right.
Jim: And that is wonderful. Thank you for what you’ve done for the country and your family.
Former President Bush: Well, thanks.
Jim: We so appreciate it. That’s not an easy job. Let me end with this last question.
Former President Bush: Okay.
Jim: You and I, when we recorded last time, I asked you sitting in that chair for eight years, what’s the greatest threat that we face?
Former President Bush: Yeah.
Jim: And your answer actually caught me off guard, although I agree with it. You said, “The destruction of the family.”
Former President Bush: Yeah, that’s the biggest domestic threat, long-term.
Jim: What do you see from that chair that gives you that concern about the stability of the family?
Former President Bush: Well, our kids growin’ up without an inspiration, without mentors, low expectations of certain children. You know, we all need mentors, and you know, people are gonna find mentors. The question is, will the mentors teach them solid values, or will they teach them, you know, you know, how to become an entrepreneur on the street, selling product that is harmful to people.
Jim: Right, boy, that’s so true.
Former President Bush: In other words, one of the things I did when I was President was [to] encourage faith-based programs to become involved in social services, because I understood that mentoring is so important for a child’s future.
Jim: Yeah, we’re fighting every day at Focus on the Family to save marriages. Last year alone, 130,000 marriages saved.
Former President Bush: That’s great.
Jim: And 210,000 decisions for Christ.
Former President Bush: That’s good.
Jim: So, that’s what we’re doing each and every day and thank you for inspiring so many people to do the same.
Former President Bush: Thank you.
Jim: God bless you.
Former President Bush: Thank you.
John: A recorded visit with Former President George W. Bush just a few days ago at the Bush Center in Dallas, Texas. And we’ll encourage you to get a copy of his book, Portraits of Courage when you call 800, the letter A and the word FAMILY or stop by www.focusonthefamily.com/radio.
As Jim and Mr. Bush were talking, Focus on the Family is here to strengthen families, including those in the military and when you make a generous gift of any amount today to support that work, we’ll send a copy of the President’s book, Portraits of Courage to you as our way of saying thank you for standing with us.
Also at the website, you’ll see some of the portraits that President Bush painted of the veterans, specifically the ones we heard from today and we’ll link over to some great outreaches to help military veterans and of course, we’ll have some information there, as well about our counseling team.
Next time on “Focus on the Family,” you’ll hear from sportscaster Ernie Johnson, who honors his late father.
Mr. Ernie Johnson Jr.: I really learned from him that kind of a mind-set in terms of what you’re doing, working as hard as you can at it and just being grateful for having the opportunity. So, here’s what my dad did. He taught me a world of lessons and didn’t even know it.
End of Teaser
John: I’m John Fuller and on behalf of Focus president, Jim Daly and the entire team, thanks for listening. Join us again next time, as we once again, help you and your family thrive in Christ.