After watching the state of the union speech I began to wonder if our country will ever mend its divisions. The president seemed especially partisan when angered and our Senate and House Representatives are either ideologically divided or pathologically attempting to win the next election.
This idea of a seemingly hopelessly divided nation has been gnawing at me quite some time. For example, in my new novel, Rogue Threat, hero Matt Garrett confronts complacency and political infighting as he attempts to stop the surprise reappearance in America of Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction mounted on some unmanned aerial vehicles called Predators.
Palin and Brigadier General Tata after a visit to Walter Reed Army Medical Center
But then I recalled a day last December when I escorted Sarah Palin through Walter Reed Army Medical Center in our nation’s capitol. In one weekend one of our most conservative governors and some of our most liberal entertainers separately devoted huge chunks of their time to being with our troops and their families. In short, just as 9-11 united us, so do the wounded stemming from that catastrophic event. These bold men and women are quietly serving a purpose beyond their contracts. The sum of the parts, as they say, is larger than the whole.
As a retired flag officer, I often have the privilege of visiting with our wounded and their families and so I commit some time and money, donating so far 100% of the book royalties to the USO Metro DC Hospital Services Fund for our wounded warriors at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and Bethesda National Naval Medical Center.
The huge response my review of her book generated, and the variety of opinions expressed therein, motivated me to reach out to her publicist on behalf of the USO to see if the governor was interested in stopping by Walter Reed when she was visiting the metro area for a book signing and the Gridiron Dinner. Within 24 hours I had a phone call saying, “Yes, the governor would absolutely like to see the troops and would prefer no publicity before the event.”
The good people at the USO Metro began working with Walter Reed staff to secure a visitation time. Other VIPs were moving through the hospital that weekend with Jon Stewart and Bruce Springsteen being two of the most notable. It was Kennedy Center Honors night and what many Americans do not realize is that several film, television, and music industry stars regularly pass through with no fanfare. Jason Acuna (“Wee-Man”) was a recent big hit with the wounded troops and their families.
We locked in Saturday for Governor Palin’s visit. She would land Saturday morning, go directly to the hospital and spend a couple of hours with the troops, then go to her book signing an hour away in Fairfax, then back to DC for the Gridiron Dinner. A record snowstorm in the DC metro area and mechanical issues on her plane at Fort Hood, Texas, delayed her arrival. The governor made the flight the next day barely in time for the Saturday afternoon book signing and when I spoke to her in Fairfax she told me with flint in her eyes that her priority, if we could reschedule, was visiting the troops the next morning.
Military men and women are nimble, used to changed plans, and the governor is a woman who knows what is important and accordingly makes on-the-fly course corrections as well. She upended her Sunday calendar, postponing a book event in Iowa, so that she could see our wounded at Walter Reed. She blew into the foyer at Walter Reed with her father, mother, aunt, husband and infant son, and she was quickly in Soldiers’ rooms, sitting with them, hugging the wounded, chatting with the families, holding the children, signing her books, giving away every ounce of energy she had in every room. I was impressed.
As the leader of thousands of troops in combat, I’ve been honored to visit hundreds of wounded and had the privilege of burying too many friends and fellow warriors. Accordingly, my “insincerity detector” is pretty good and I give Governor Palin high marks. She was in the moment with those Soldiers and families. All wrapped in one person, she was leader, mother, friend, grateful American, and grieving parent.
Indeed, she slipped emotionally between comments such as, “I can see my son in you,” and “I can’t thank you enough for everything you’ve given to our great country.” Her son, Track, is an active duty Soldier in the combat infantry brigade in Alaska. Clearly, she could see her son in these Soldiers because he had been driving around Iraq leading the commander’s security team into the most dangerous areas, and she had been living every mother’s impossibly difficult job to pray for the best and know that the worst was possible. She has walked a mile in their shoes.
Hers were quiet words, spoken in the confines of a small hospital room with the wounded Soldier, his or her family present, and perhaps Todd Palin or Chuck Heath, the governor’s father, in the background.
At some point in time the President of the USO put her finger in my chest and said, “Tony go get your book, the troops are asking about it.” It had been some months since I had walked through the hospital and I didn’t want to latch onto the Palin event, but I tend to do what Elaine Rogers tells me to do, so I cycled back, dumped a bunch of books on the cart and went into rooms the governor had already visited.
This gave me the unique opportunity of getting feedback from the Soldiers and families as I sat with them apart from the governor’s entourage, this time signing my book and just chatting about combat, units, mutual acquaintances and so on. The feedback was universally positive about Governor Palin.
I’m a firm believer that the troops don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. The current occupant of the White House might be well advised to heed that advice, by the way. Everyone I have ever known that has walked through Walter Reed and visited with our wounded has stood in that big foyer walking out of the front door on a high. Instead of feeling saddened at their tragedy, you are elated that you were able to spend a few minutes in the company of such men and women. You stood amongst heroes if only for a short while, but nonetheless, you were there.
And so it was with Governor Palin. She radiated energy as she left, saying, “It reminds us all of what is so important, our freedom, our great Soldiers…” She’s right, of course. Every time I visit with our wounded, I come away inspired and that day in December was no different. I was inspired by our troops, as always, and by their powerfully strong families.
But I was also inspired by Governor Palin and the fact that here we have a national politician who still has a soul and a spirit, and still cares. In my review of Going Rogue, I used the term “pioneer tough” to describe Palin and after spending a morning with her in the hospital with our wounded heroes, I think that’s a fitting description. If you read Going Rogue you get a good feel for the woman. She is as advertised: straightforward, caring, smart, quick-witted, family oriented, and very intuitive.
And, upon reflection, I was inspired by the fact that, in one weekend Jon Stewart, Bruce Springsteen, and Sarah Palin all agreed on one thing: that it is worth stopping their world and saying “thank you” to our wounded warriors and their families.