Living

Almost killed in Afghanistan, he’s now been painted by the president who sent him there

Painting of Ramon Padilla by George W. Bush for “Portraits of Courage.”
Painting of Ramon Padilla by George W. Bush for “Portraits of Courage.” Crown

Four years after the Taliban blew off most of his left arm in Afghanistan, former Army Sgt. First Class Ramon Padilla traveled to Dallas for a wounded warrior golf tournament. For putting advice, he relied on the man who sent him to war.

“Sir,” Padilla asked former President George W. Bush, “where is this hole breaking?”

Bush, looking at Padilla’s ball 20 feet from the hole, gave his ex-soldier an order: “Ramon, just make the freakin’ putt.”

A few months later, Bush took up painting and was given given a similar order by his instructor while brooding over colors: “Just paint the cube, George.”

For both men, the answer to their struggles was the same: Don’t dwell; move on. Padilla made the putt, a story he tells to inspire wounded vets to take up the sport. Bush painted the cube, then moved on to fruit, his dogs, self portraits and pictures of world leaders.

Now, with the wars behind him but still present in his mind, Bush has published “Portraits of Courage,” a best-selling book of 98 portraits of warriors he befriended after they came home not quite the same as they left. Padilla, 42, is on the cover with six other veterans staring into the distance — pensive, wounded. Only one is smiling.

Besides losing his arm, Padilla, cracked part of his skull and suffered a traumatic brain injury.

“It looks like me because of the scar on my head,” Padilla said, staring at himself on the cover. “I guess he got my pointy nose right, too.”

To Padilla, who lives with his wife and three kids in Waldorf, Md., and works at the Pentagon helping other wounded warriors find internships, the portrait is more than just a reminder of the wounds he suffered during the longest war in the country’s history. It is proof that Bush continues to make good on a promise to spend the rest of his life helping and celebrating the more than 2.6 million men and women sent into battle after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

“He’ll never forget what all the warriors did this for this country,” Padilla said. “This shows you he cares. He’s not forgetting.”

Padilla and Bush met at a tournament the former president hosted for the Salute Military Golf Association, a group founded by Jim Estes, a pro golfer from Olney, Md. Padilla, a baseball and football star in high school, was referred to the program by his rehabilitation therapist at Walter Reed.

At his first lesson, Padilla hit the ball farther and more accurately than many two-handed weekend duffers. Eventually, he helped develop a prosthesis that allowed him to swing with two arms. The sport centered him.

“It gave Ramon the confidence he needed to move on as a father, a husband, really as a man,” Estes said. “And besides that, he really became an excellent golfer.”

But on the course that day in 2011 with the former president, Padilla was less concerned with his score than he was with making sure Bush didn’t feel awkward around him or the other wounded warriors. Padilla doesn’t blame him for his wounds.

“I’m pretty sure people have a lot of questions for him,” Padilla said. “There’s a lot of controversy. He did his best as president. We were proud and honored he sent us to war to fight for our country. We wanted to do that for him. I would never want to disrespect him or question him in anything he did.”

The attack

So Padilla didn’t bring up what happened on July 8, 2007.

He and his squad had just finished their patrol in the mountains of Afghanistan and were preparing for dinner — Philly cheesesteaks made by a soldier from Philly. Padilla went to round up his men, yelling, “Hurry up before I get f-----g shot.”

A few seconds later, a rocket-propelled grenade blew up just steps from Padilla, leaving his arm dangling from his body by skin and ligaments. After surgeons removed his arm, they left it on his chest as a way to temporarily comfort him.

“Even though I had lost it,” Padilla said, “I hadn’t lost it.”

Padilla spent more than two years recovering at Walter Reed, wondering how he’d play catch with his kids and provide for his family. But he kept all that to himself with the former commander-in-chief, though Bush could see that Padilla had returned with only one arm.

“We talked about family,” Padilla said. “I said, ‘Hey sir, how is your putting going? How are your daughters?’ Stuff like that. I didn’t want him to be uncomfortable.”

Padilla and his wife, Judith, were invited to Bush’s home. Laura Bush showed them around, telling the stories behind family mementos and photos. Bush had not started painting yet.

“I had been an art-agnostic all my life,” Bush wrote in the introduction to “Portraits of Courage.”

In the spring of 2012, a Yale history professor visited Bush at his office. The professor mentioned Winston Churchill’s essay, “Painting as a Pastime.” Bush reveres Churchill. Bush said to himself, “If that old boy can paint, I can paint.”

Bush took an online art history course from the Museum of Modern Art. He hired an instructor. “There’s a Rembrandt in this body,” he told her. “Your job is to liberate him.” And he turned his “man cave” into an art studio.

“For the first time in my 66 years,” he wrote in the book’s introduction, “I picked up a paintbrush that wasn’t meant for drywall.”

The cube. Landscapes. Self portraits in the bathtub and shower. Bush painted whenever he had time. Eventually, he painted portraits of world leaders he knew — Vladimir Putin, Tony Blair, the Dalai Lama. In 2015, painter Sedrick Huckaby suggested that Bush paint people he knew but others didn’t.

“Instantly, I thought of painting wounded warriors I had gotten to know,” Bush wrote. He directed his staff to collect photos and stories of veterans he remembered, including Padilla, who also served in Iraq.

Padilla got an email that Bush wanted to paint him, and the former president used a photo taken of him during his trip to Dallas.

This was not some sort of apology, a way to make amends for decisions that many Americans still condemn and that have killed almost 6,900 U.S. service members. In promoting the book last week, Bush told the “Today Show” that he still thought he had made the right decisions in sending American troops to war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I regret they got hurt,” he said.

The portraits of the wounded warriors are meant “to show their determination to recover, lack of self-pity and desire to continue to serve in new ways as civilians,” Bush wrote. “I painted these men and women as a way to honor their service to the country and to show my respect for their sacrifice and courage.”

Proceeds from the book will go to veterans charities. The portraits are also being displayed at Bush’s presidential library in Dallas. Padilla hopes to travel there to see his face, and that scar, hanging on the wall. He’d like to see Bush again. After he made that long putt, Bush grabbed him and rubbed his hair, celebrating.

“It was like he was my uncle,” Padilla said. “I had that kind of bond with him.”

In the meantime, he’s showing off the book to friends and family. Bush autographed the page with his portrait.

“To Ramon,” he wrote. “With respect and admiration.”

Books

“Portaits of Courage” by George W. Bush, Crown, 192 pages, $35.

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