I remember it quite well because it was my birthday in March 2001. My wife and I were with friends on a beach in south Florida celebrating when my cell phone rang and our oldest daughter in a very excited voice said “Dad, President Bush’s secretary just called and said he would like to speak with you.” Once she calmed down I asked if they left a phone number, which I copied down. The number was a Houston, Texas, area code. We realized it was President George H. W. Bush (41). My wife looked at me and said, ‘You better call him right now.”
Some months earlier we had mailed to President Bush’s Presidential Library and Museum at Texas A&M in College Station, Texas, an Iraqi Army uniform I had captured in Desert Storm in 1991. The uniform was rather distinct because it was an Iraqi Paratrooper Lieutenant’s uniform complete with patches and badges as well as his beret. Although we had numerous offers from military artifact collectors to sell the uniform we felt it should reside in the Bush Museum.
As soon as I called the number, President Bush was placed on the line. He said he wanted to personally thank me for the wonderful gift to his library. He asked how I came about the uniform and about my background and service. He closed by saying if I ever visited Houston to let him know and stop over for coffee. It was at that point that I told him, with his approval, I would like to bring my wife and two teenage daughters to meet him. His response was, splendid idea and he transferred me to his secretary to plan a visit. In April 2001, our family flew to Houston.
After visiting with the Secret Service detail we were introduced to the president. For over an hour we visited with him in his office. I’m not sure I got more than a few sentences in because my wife and daughters seemed to have the president’s interest. They talked about school, future college, their ambitions. Before we left, he gave us some autographed books that he had written.
Then the president showed us his parachute jump from his birthday. He was very proud of it and said he planned to do it again. He gave us some autographed pictures from his jump. Then he explained he was jumping for the two crew members he lost over the Pacific when his torpedo bomber was shot down in 1944. You could see in his eyes and on his face the significance the jumps meant to him. Both my wife ‘s father and my father were combat veterans of World War II, so we understood. As we left his office my daughters looked at me and said, “It was just like talking to grandpa.” Yes, that’s how personal he made us feel, like we were family.
My wife and I would go on to meet President Bush on numerous occasions in Minnesota, New York and Washington and had a wonderful time reminding him of our Houston visit. He would always ask about our daughters. Family seemed the most important thing to him.
We mourn the passing of this member of the “Greatest Generation.” His service to our nation is a shining example of what is possible and important to our future generations. America has lost a hero and we have lost a friend.
Lt Col. Joe Repya, of Fort Myers, Fla., formerly of Eagan, is a retired from the U.S. Army after 30 years of service that included Vietnam, Operation Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom.