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White House AAR
There’s been a lot of talk about who the mystery ASP blogger (my other blog) was at the recent meeting with the President. No, it wasn’t the President of local chapter of corn growers and spider hunters. The President of the United States. I’m sure to most people, it was pretty obvious who the “representative from A Soldier’s Perspective” was. Yes, I was there. Not only was I there, but I was able to take the Texan seat of honor next to the Man himself – Mohammed of Iraq the Model. Oh, I sat next to Mr. George W. Bush as well.
A few weeks ago, I was contacted by the Office of Media Liaison and told that I was being invited to the White House for a “special event” with select milbloggers. For the record, CPL M was also invited but unable to attend because he’s busy doing to the work of this country to ensure our continued safety and way of life. The meeting was strictly close hold and we weren’t to discuss it with anyone outside those with a need to know (in my case – my chain of command).
Eight milbloggers were present and two attended via a VTC (video teleconference) from Baghdad – Bill Roggio of the Long War Journal, Bill Ardolino of INDC Journal. Those present and accounted for in the West Wing were The Armorer of Argghhh!, Matt Burden of Blackfive, Mrs. Greyhawk of Mudville Gazette (Greyhawk was also attending to the nation’s business and unable to attend), NZ Bear of the TTLB and the Victory Caucus , Steve Schippert of Threats Watch, Ward Carroll of Military.Com (an all-around great guy and pleasure to be around) and, of course, Mohammed of Iraq the Model.
We arrived at the White House on time at 0900. After processing through security and getting checked in at the lobby, we were ushered into the Roosevelt Room of the West Wing. For those that aren’t aware of White House history, the Roosevelt Room was the original office of the President back when the West Wing was built back in 1902. When the West Wing was expanded and the Oval Office was created, the Roosevelt Room became sort of a waiting room for those meeting with the President. The room is set up to handle secure conferences and also serves as the place the President meets with his National Security team. You can take a 360 degree virtual tour here. The camera is set at the position where the President sits.
Anyway, we sat for a few minutes of nervous chatter admiring the fact that any minute we’re going to be in the presence of the most powerful man in the world, politically speaking. We had no idea exactly when the President would come in. Each time the door opened our hearts stopped beating only to be greeted by aides, assistants, and other important staff types. Along with the milbloggers present, placards were on the table that read “Kevin Sullivan” (Assistant to the President for Communications), “Tony Snow” (this meeting was taking place on Mr. Snow’s final day of work), “Dana Perino” (Mr. Snow’s replacement as Press Secretary), “Stephen Hadley” (Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs), “Mark Pfeifle” ( Deputy Assistant to the President and Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications and Global Outreach), and General Lute (the one and only War Czar, officially Assistant to the President and Deputy National Security Advisor for Iraq and Afghanistan ). Without waiting on any of his staff, the President entered the room at 0951 – nine minutes ahead of schedule.
As he walked in, he personally shook each of our hands, thanking US for being there. One by one we introduced ourselves. The President ordered us (well, he is my Commander in Chief. To everyone else it was probably more of a request) to have a seat and sat down himself. Now, I need to take this opportunity to explain what a down to earth guy we have as President. He made each of feel genuinely welcome. When he sat down he didn’t sit in a dominating posture at the end of the table. He got comfortable and was slightly slouched in his comfortable leather chair. As he did so, his tie sort of drooped to his left side, his jacket unbuttoned and open. However, he was also a very Presidential man, obviously aware of his responsibilities and role. He thanked us for being there and gave us an opening statement, unprepared and unwritten. It came from his heart as he spoke about his determination for victory in this global war on terrorism. I was so in awe while he sat there speaking literally inches from me that I didn’t think to take any notes. We weren’t allowed to have cameras or audio recorders, so we had to rely on our notes.
“I looked at my schedule today, and I found it interesting that I would be sitting down with bloggers.” That’s how it started. It should be noted that this is the first time in history that a sitting President has sat down with a group of military bloggers (probably ANY group of bloggers). There was no other media present and no press releases were given to announce the meeting before or afterwards.
After his opening remarks, he opened up the floor to questions from us, beginning with the guys in Iraq. Bill Ardolino recently visited Fallujah to check on progress since his last visit there in January. “The progress in Fallujah especially has been remarkable between January and September,” he said. This is going on all over the country as the surge works its magic allowing the government to begin its political reconciliation (a phrase I probably heard more times than my ten fingers can count). The President remarked that over $2.6 billion has been distributed to local governments for reconstruction and jobs. This year alone, over $227 million in oil revenue has been pushed down to local governments. Counter to what the media is reporting, the government has a working budget process that is getting better with each day. They are still trying to figure that piece out.
Another interesting tidbit of information that came out during the meeting is that Marine Major General Douglas Stone is managing a predominantly Sunni-occupied prison system in Iraq. This isn’t like the prison system you’d probably imagine. Gen Stone has a brilliant plan for rehabilitating the prisoners. Most of the Sunnis jailed in the prisons are accused of crimes of affiliation. Some were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Still others committed their crimes so Al Qaeda terrorists wouldn’t kill their families. Gen Stone has instituted a vocational training school into his prison system to teach these young Sunnis valuable skills they can use to earn money and take care of their families. He teaches them alternatives to violence. He also brings in moderate religious leaders to teach them the truly peaceful nature of Islam. The goal is to show them that the extremist religious views they’ve been taught are incorrect. The other way this is being done is by teaching these young men to read so that they can open up a Koran and see for themselves the way their religion has been bastardized by extremist Imams. While there aren’t any metrics to prove the system is working yet, the theory behind it is brilliant as a concept. I can’t see how it could fail.
I kept my eyes on the President almost the entire time. He made sure that he kept eye contact with us as he spoke. There wasn’t a person in that room who wasn’t included in his speech. President Bush spoke candidly to us. He didn’t speak at us and he didn’t speak down to us. He treated us like respectful Americans. When he spoke of his father’s WWII service, he literally teared up. Being right next to him, I caught a single tear attempt to roll down his left cheek before he casually wiped it away. No one else seemed to notice. Looking in his eyes as he spoke about the pride he felt in his father, his eyes began to glaze and behind them was a real person who happens to be our 43rd President. George Bush is a man of values and he brought this out.
He’s also a man of responsibility. When we got on the subject of the despicable behavior by members of Congress (my point, by the way), he made it a point not to talk down about Congress either. I had thanked him and Tony Snow for their recent strong statements against the reality that the media and our elected officials seem to have a problem with acknowledging, even applauding, success by our military. He took ownership of his plan. He made sure we knew that he does not govern this country at the polls. He does what is right. I wrote this quote down immediately after he said because it should be a headline when a book is written about him. In all caps I wrote the word “OWNERSHIP”, which was followed by his quote: “This is George Bush’s policy. I am a Commander in Chief. I expect to be attacked politically. But, do not attack those Generals!” He went on to talk about the noble profession of military service and the kind of honorable Soldier that Gen David Patraeus is.
President Bush is not concerned with his legacy and he has no need to be. I explained to him that after the USS Cole bombing I was so prepared to go to war at that point. I was utterly frustrated that nothing was done, especially after the embassy bombings and the first WTC bombing. I decided to do something about it myself and changed professions to one that would get me closer to the fight if one ever did break out. As it turns out, while I was in training for this new position, September 11th happened. I can’t remember exactly what I asked the President because I was choking up having just mentioned my good friend SSG Stevon Booker who died in front of me in Iraq. I just started babbling after that. It was pathetic, you should have seen it. I thanked him for finally taking the fight to the enemy and having the nerves of steel to see it through to the end – whatever that means. Those guys did not die in vain. He mentioned that he recently finished reading a new book about George Washington, the third one he’s read. “If they’re still talking about the first president, the 43rd has nothing to worry about,” Bush said. How right he is.
We sat there for an hour and would’ve stayed longer had Marine One not landed when it did. President Bush was scheduled to be at Quantico, VA for the induction of brand spanking new Marine Corps Second Lieutenants (God help the Corps!). He wrapped everything up and thanked us again and asked if we’d like to see the Oval Office before he takes off. Uh, yeah!! He led us into the brightly lit, surreal room where all the magic happens. “This is the Oval Office. What do you think?” the President asked. “It’s alright,” piped in someone behind me, probably Blackfive or Steve Shippert!! This is the room where the decision to go to war was made. This is the room where a lot of very difficult decisions are made. This is the room where presidents and diplomats from all over the globe gather to discuss policy. And we were there!!
As you walk into the Oval Office you can’t help but notice the magnificence of the lighting and decor. The lighting is so well done that you don’t even notice the absence of shadows. You half expect to hear angels usher in your entrance to the office. Everything about it is upbeat and positive and warming (and not because of global warming either). We took turns getting individual photos with the President in front of his desk. He gave each of us a coin as we finished. He invited us out to the south lawn to watch him take off in Marine One. He climbed up onto the platform like he has hundreds of times. However, instead of waving to the cameras, he turned towards our “group of eight” and gave a hearty wave BEFORE turning to the cameras so they could get their photo op. I couldn’t help but chuckle under my breath at the subtle jab.
Marine One took off and we were invited back into the West Wing. As we walked down the sidewalk along the Oval Office, we caught a glimpse of Barney. I think Barney has a blog too come to think of it. He stopped whatever he was doing and watched us walk by, almost as if to say thanks as well.
And that was how I spent my morning at the White House. The moral of the story is that it pays to be a Texas boy!!