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 Service Initiative.
All three 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 stories.
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 their routes.
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 memory loss.
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 to end.
“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.
Vincent was 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.
Constantine and 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.”
Bush’s commitment 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.
Constantine says 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.
“President Bush 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.
Haines, a 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.
Haines credits his family, nurses, doctors, and chaplains with getting him through his darkest days.
“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.”
Haines was 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 heartfelt.
“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.”
Bush laughed, 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 families.
“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 future costs.
“It’s not a show on TV.”