George W. Bush works on a portrait in his Dallas studio.

Grant Miller/Courtesty of Crown, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC

The Soldiers He Sent Into Battle

With his pen and paintbrush, former president George W. Bush pays tribute to wounded veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars

One of the hardest parts of being president is sending American troops off to war, knowing those men and women could be killed or wounded.

As Commander in Chief of the military, the president also has the unenviable job of consoling the families of fallen soldiers. The raw emotions involved in this task were on display recently when President Trump’s condolence call to the widow of a dead soldier led to accusations that Trump was insensitive, which he denies. But these situations are incredibly difficult for all presidents.

Former President George W. Bush made many condolence calls and visits to meet wounded troops. During his presidency (2001-09), he sent tens of thousands of soldiers to fight wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. More than 4,400 Americans died in Iraq and close to 32,000 were wounded. In the Afghanistan war, which is still going on, more than 2,000 have died and another 20,000 have been wounded. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq was controversial, and the war there became more unpopular as it dragged on. (It officially ended in 2011.)

Since leaving office, Bush has spent much of his time working to provide support services for veterans and holding competitive sporting events for wounded soldiers through his public service organization, the Bush Institute. Veterans are also the subject of Bush’s recent book, Portraits of Courage: A Commander in Chief’s Tribute to America’s Warriors, which contains the president’s paintings of wounded soldiers and short essays he wrote about their lives, before and after battle.

“I painted these men and women as a way to honor their sacrifice to the country and to show my respect for their sacrifice and courage,” Bush writes.

Following are four essays and portraits by President Bush, adapted from his book.

Juan Carlos Hernandez

U.S. Army, 2006–11  Lost his right leg to a rocket-propelled grenade 

Courtesy Juan Carlos Hernandez

Juan Carlos Hernandez in Afghanistan in 2009, in front of the helicopter on which he was a gunner (left); learning to walk on his prosthetic leg after his injury

Grant Miller. Published by Crown, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.

Juan Carlos Hernandez in his portrait by President Bush. 

Juan Carlos Hernandez was born in Orizaba, Mexico. At the age of 9, his mother brought Juan and his two brothers to the United States so they could build better lives than she’d had.

“Unfortunately, we didn’t have papers, so we crossed the border illegally,” Juan says. “I was terrified. I didn’t speak a single word of English, and I knew nothing about this place I would come to love and call home.”

After graduating from high school in Schulenburg, Texas, Juan joined the Army. “I wanted to be part of something bigger than myself and do something that 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,” he says.

Juan served in Afghanistan, where he manned a machine gun in the door of a helicopter. On a mission in 2009, a rocket-propelled grenade hit his team’s helicopter. Juan lost his right leg in the attack.

He recovered at Brooke Army Medical Center, in Texas, where he was fitted with a prosthetic leg. He started walking again in just three months.

Juan was deeply moved by the care he received throughout his recovery—so moved, in fact, that he is now pursuing his undergraduate degree in kinesiology, the study of the mechanics of body movements. After being on the receiving end of life-changing physical therapy, Juan wants to pay it forward. “I would love to work with children who struggle with disabilities and make their lives better.”

Juan is grateful for the opportunity to have served this country—his country. “That’s my payback. That’s my way of saying thank-you,” he says.

He became an American citizen in May 2009.* Juan’s story is one example of the countless ways that immigrants make America great. And I am honored and humbled to call Juan Carlos Hernandez my fellow citizen.

*Juan got a green card that gave him legal status when he was 15. Undocumented immigrants with no legal status cannot serve in the military.

Daniel Casara

U.S. ARMY, 1994–2008  Both legs crushed when an explosion flipped the vehicle he was in

Courtesy Daniel Casara

Danny Casara recovering after his injury

Grant Miller. Published by Crown, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.

Danny Casara’s portrait

Danny Casara is a man of many interests. He started playing the drums at age 2. At 7, he fell in love with baseball. He was a biology pre-med student at Xavier University in Louisiana before changing his major to music and liberal arts. Then he joined the Army.

In 2005, an antitank mine flipped Danny’s armored personnel carrier in Baghdad, killing two of his teammates and crushing Danny’s legs. “Doctors asked me if I wanted them to save my legs,” he recalls. “I said, ‘Yeah. I came into this world with two legs, and I’m going to leave with two.’”

It took 24 surgeries to keep them, and doctors weren’t sure whether Danny would walk again. “I had to relearn how to walk. The falling, the getting back up—it just became a way of life.”

Danny says his recovery accelerated when he began coaching his son’s baseball team. “Trying to teach him how to field a ground ball from a wheelchair was frustrating,” he says, “so I just pushed myself. And my family, friends, and many nonprofit organizations helped me recover.” 

In 2014, Danny spoke in front of a large crowd at a dinner the Bush Institute was hosting. He had the entire audience captivated with his story and its lessons. He was so good, I nicknamed him The Preacher.

“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,” he says. “If someone is down, reach out hard to help pull them up. You will heal faster in the process.” Amen.

Timothy Gaestel

U.S. ARMY, 2001–05  Suffered severe shrapnel wounds to his legs and back

Courtesy Timothy Gaestel

Tim Gaestel serving in Iraq in 2004

Grant Miller. Published by Crown, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.

Tim Gaestel in his Bush portrait

Tim Gaestel was scheduled to leave for basic training on Sept. 11, 2001. That morning, our country—and Tim’s future—changed forever. Tim served two combat tours, one in Afghanistan and one in Iraq.

Just 10 days after he arrived in Iraq in September 2003, Tim’s Humvee was hit by two roadside bombs on an infamous stretch of road known as Ambush Alley. His legs and back were severely wounded by the shrapnel. Tim recovered in Iraq and completed his time there, despite the persistent pain of his injuries.

When Tim’s unit returned to the U.S., they resumed their physical training regimen with a six-mile run. Tim managed to finish the run. Then, he collapsed. “I couldn’t feel my legs, and my back was on fire,” Tim says. “I knew then that I couldn’t be the kind of soldier that I wanted to be, so I needed to go do something else for my community.”

Unfortunately, that “something else” didn’t reveal itself right away. “It was hard seeing how the country was just moving on,” Tim says. “I came back to Austin and saw a concert with friends. People were happy and dancing around like nothing had happened. There was a war going on, and they didn’t seem to know it.”

Tim secluded himself, having lost the desire to hang out with his friends. He started dropping classes at Texas State University. He stopped exercising because of the pain and gained weight.

He felt alone, but he wasn’t. “I want to thank my father,” Tim says. “He saw me struggle and saw that something was wrong. One day he pulled up and demanded I come out and play golf with him.”

Something just clicked out on the course. “It got me back on my feet, back moving, back doing something. I became hooked. Golf saved my life.”

Today, Tim teaches history and coaches golf at Vista Ridge High School, in Cedar Park, Texas—the district from which he graduated.

Melissa Stockwell

U.S. ARMY, 2002–05  Lost her left leg to a roadside bomb

Sandra Mu/Getty Images

Melissa Stockwell after finishing a triathlon in 2012. 

Grant Miller. Published by Crown, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC

Melissa Stockwell in her portrait

Melissa Stockwell’s Army service began in an ROTC* program during her sophomore year at the University of Colorado. “I joined because I love our country, short and simple,” she says, adding with poise and grace, “I proudly put an American flag on my prosthetic leg. I’m proud to show it off, proud of how I lost it.”

On April 13, 2004, three weeks into Melissa’s deployment to Iraq, her vehicle hit an IED.** A combat medic performed emergency surgery on the scene, stabilizing Melissa and saving her life. She was the first female to lose a limb in the war on terror.

“I was 24 years old when I lost my leg,” Melissa says. “You never expect it to happen. You never think it’s going to be you.” She spent a year recovering at Walter Reed medical center, outside of Washington, D.C. “I looked around and saw a lot of other soldiers who were much worse off than I was. We were all trying to find our new normal. I really considered myself one of the lucky ones. I used their resilience as motivation. I wanted to live my life for those who gave the ultimate sacrifice and didn’t make it back at all.”

An eternal optimist and lifelong athlete, Melissa says the hardest part was waiting for her body to heal enough that she could get moving again.

“I wanted to live my life for those who made the ultimate sacrifice.”

Melissa went back to college to study prosthetics so she could learn to fit other amputees with artificial limbs. She became a great runner, a great swimmer, and a great cyclist, which she realized made her a great triathlete. In 2016, Melissa represented Team USA in the triathlon at the Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. She earned the bronze medal.

Perhaps my proudest memory of Melissa is from the dedication of my Presidential Center in Dallas in 2013, when Melissa agreed to be a part of the program onstage. I introduced her to every living president. Then I watched as Melissa led us—along with the crowd of thousands—in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag she loved and defended.

*ROTC (Reserve Officers’ Training Corps) is a college-based military officer training program.

**An IED (improvised explosive device) is a kind of bomb made from unconventional materials such as nails or radio parts.

Adapted from Portraits of Courage. Copyright © 2017 by George W. Bush. Photographs by Grant Miller. Published by Crown, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.

videos (2)
videos (2)
Skills Sheets (5)
Skills Sheets (5)
Skills Sheets (5)
Skills Sheets (5)
Skills Sheets (5)
Lesson Plan (1)