By Gina Harkins
When medically retired Army
Capt. Bryon Vincent got an email in 2015 from the office of former President
George W. Bush requesting some personal information so the president could
paint his portrait, the armor officer immediately deleted it.
“We had just had the [Office of Personnel Management
data] breach, and I get this email,” recalls Vincent, who now runs information
technology management for the FBI’s financial facilities division. “ ‘This is a
phishing attempt,’ I thought.”
Turns out the request was no scam. A few weeks later,
someone from the 43rd president’s office followed up. Vincent — along with
retired Lt. Cols. Justin Constantine and David Haines — was among 98 combat
veterans Bush painted for his book Portraits of Courage: A Commander in
Chief’s Tribute to America’s Warriors (Crown Publishers, 2017). In
the book’s introduction, Bush explains his motivations behind painting wounded
warriors: “I wanted to show their determination to recover [and] lack of
self-pity. ... I intend to salute and
support them for the rest of my life.” Bush is donating his author proceeds
from the book to the George W. Bush Presidential Center and its Military
officers had deployed to Iraq in 2006, a volatile time when sectarian violence
took the country to the brink of civil war. They each sustained life-changing
injuries and never imagined they’d later have their portraits painted by the
commander in chief who sent them into combat.
Here are their
Capt. Bryon Vincent, USA (RET)
Vincent didn’t know he was injured until he returned from a yearlong
deployment to Iraq.
In 2006, Vincent
was deployed west of Baghdad with 1st Battalion, 22nd Infantry Regiment, which
was assigned to the 4th Infantry Division. Friction between the Sunni and
Shiite populations was heating up, and Vincent’s unit routinely was attacked.
The soldiers found IEDs on nearly every patrol, sometimes daisy-chained across
During a night
patrol, Vincent and four other soldiers were knocked unconscious after their
vehicle struck an IED. The pressure from the blast fractured his gunner’s
skull. Three months later, Vincent was in a convoy headed back to base after an
18-hour patrol when his vehicle struck another pressure plate. The IED
detonated, and the blast again knocked him unconscious.
Vincent didn’t know it then, but his brain hadn’t yet
healed from the first incident. The second explosion compounded the injury,
leaving brain fluid spilling from his ears. He suffered severe nausea and
Still, he finished
out the rest of his deployment.
“That was part of
the downside of brain injuries back then,” Vincent says. “They really didn’t
treat us until we got back.”
It was when he
checked “yes” next to a box about IED blasts on his post-deployment health
assessment that a brain scan was ordered. About an hour after the scan, he was
told he had a traumatic brain injury (TBI). He knew his Army career was about
“I was shocked,”
he says. “I had just finished up a very difficult deployment. [Leaving the
Army] was the last thing on my mind.”
The transition was
rough, but Vincent’s brain continued to heal as he awaited his discharge. Once
he was out, the graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., wrote
a letter to Bush telling him it was his dream to play a round of golf with him.
“I thought he was
a great leader, and he had a lot of courage to do what he felt was right,”
Vincent says. “He stayed very committed to the troops.”
Vincent got that
chance when Bush invited him to play in a tournament for wounded warriors. He
describes the former commander in chief as a jokester who razzes him whenever
he makes a bad golf shot.
surprised to find out the president had painted his portrait, but he calls it
an honor and a privilege. When he looks at Bush’s artwork, he says he sees “a
president who loves his military and is connected to them.” He hopes it reminds
Americans about the cost of war and helps encourage other wounded warriors.
“There’s a long
lineage of people who’ve come back from conflict emotionally changed forever,”
he says. “But there are a lot of success stories in President Bush’s book,
whether it’s lost limbs, [post-traumatic stress], or TBI. I hope that’s what
veterans see when they look at it.”
Lt. Col. Justin Constantine, USMC (RET)
Constantine was a lawyer who volunteered to deploy to Iraq’s Anbar province in 2006. He was on a small civil affairs team attached
to 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines, operating between Fallujah and Ramadi. He
was just six weeks into that deployment when his
life changed forever.
his team were on patrol when he was shot in the head by an Iraqi sniper. At
first, his teammates thought he was dead. Then his corpsman sprang into action,
giving him lifesaving first aid. The team rushed him to a nearby vehicle and
drove through IED-heavy territory to get him medical assistance.
After dozens of
surgeries, Constantine now is a
motivational speaker who writes about leadership. He’s active in the wounded warrior community and first met Bush when he
introduced the former president at a veterans’ symposium. A few years later,
Bush told the retired Marine Corps officer he had painted
his portrait. “I was caught off
guard and [was] pleasantly surprised. I have a face for radio,” Constantine
quips, “so I’m glad that he put me in the book.”
to veterans is sincere, Constantine
says. He’s certain the decision to send troops into combat continues to weigh
on Bush, and Constantine says whenever he sees the former president, Bush wants
to hear about any challenges facing the veteran community.
“You can tell if
someone cares about what they’re talking about, and when it comes to veterans,
[Bush] really does care,” says Constantine, who also participates in Bush’s
golf tournaments for wounded warriors.
he’s honored not only to be included in Portraits of Courage but
also to have his story featured alongside so many inspiring veterans. Post-9/11
veterans often are portrayed as broken or shadows of their former selves,
Constantine says, and that’s inaccurate. He finds motivation in the other
wounded warriors’ stories every time he looks at Bush’s book.
would never want someone to look at this book and feel sorry for us,” he says.
“He would want them to read the book and say, ‘Wow. Look what these amazing
people were able to do despite what happened to them. They’re putting those
problems behind them and pushing forward.’ ”
Lt. Col. David Haines, USA (Ret)
Haines was devastated after he was medically evacuated from Iraq. He
felt he let down his unit and his comrades.
battalion operations officer with the 2nd Brigade, 1st Infantry Division, was
in an armored vehicle in Baghdad that was hit by an explosive projectile. The
attack killed 37-year-old Maj. David Taylor, who also was in the vehicle. Three
other people lost limbs, and Haines took shrapnel to his arm and side. He went
through years of rehabilitation once he returned to the U.S.
his family, nurses, doctors, and chaplains with getting him through his darkest
“They did an
amazing job piecing me back together,” he says. “I’m fortunate enough to be
able to say that, and I’m very thankful for that.”
recovering at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.,
when Bush pinned on Haines’ Purple Heart. It was a quick ceremony, but “he
impressed me,” Haines says. “He’s a great guy.”
Haines was an
avid bike rider before he was injured, and he returned to the sport once he was
out of the hospital. It helps him set goals, and training for different events
gives him purpose. He now has participated in four of Bush’s 100-kilometer
mountain bike rides for servicemembers.
Whenever he talks
to Bush or sees him around other veterans, Haines says the interactions are
“You may not
agree with his decisions [as president], but from a soldier’s perspective, he
genuinely cares about the military and their family members,” Haines says. “I
think he feels the weight of his decisions. He took them seriously, and he
feels a debt to [those] who’ve served in the war.”
Haines says he
was “floored” when he found out his former commander in chief had painted his
portrait. Haines was at an event with Bush last year when he was shown a photo
of the finished product. Haines’ response: “Huh.”
Haines says, and asked, “You don’t like it?” It was a funny and awkward moment,
but Haines says the portrait has grown on him.
Like Vincent and
Constantine, Haines says he hopes Americans don’t see victims when they look at
the book. He’s inspired by other servicemembers whose portraits were painted,
and he even wonders why he was included.
“There are some
really amazing people in that book,” Haines says. “Paralympians, people with
far more grievous injuries … I’m humbled to be included in the book, but I
think there are far more impressive records of service.”
Haines hopes Portraits of Courage helps people understand the cost of war and the impact it has on
“This might not
be a popular sentiment, but I think we as Americans talk about going to war too
lightly,” he says. “I think when you start talking about sending men and women
to war, we need to be fully aware not only of the costs in the moment, but the
“It’s not a show