A Green Beret Sits For A Portrait By His Former Commander In Chief

Mar 4, 2017
Originally published on March 4, 2017 8:35 am

Michael Rodriguez is both a military man and a muse. Years after President George W. Bush sent him into war, the two men now call each other friends.

Rodriguez was a U.S. Army Special Forces Green Beret who served from 1992 to 2013. He's featured in President Bush's book of portraits of more than 60 soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who served in wars under his watch. It's called Portraits of Courage: A Commander in Chief's Tribute to America's Warriors.

Rodriguez says the likeness is pretty good: "I'm blown away that my former commander in chief would actually take the time to paint those that served under him," Rodriguez says. "And I'm humbled that he selected me as one of them. I think it's a pretty good representation of me. ... I'm still kind of processing the whole thing."

Rodriguez, who served nine deployments in 21 years, says he has big hopes for the former president's project.

"My hope for this, for his book, is that it bridges that civilian-military divide that Americans feel," he says.


Interview Highlights

On whether he was ever angry with a president for sending him into conflict

No. I've never been upset. You know, growing up I was a patriotic American. Heck, my wife's still active duty serving in the Army. She's a combat veteran. ... My oldest son is stationed here in the 82nd Airborne division. I've worked under all the presidents, you know, from President [George H. W.] Bush to President Obama and I've never, I've never been angry at my commander in chief. The burden of command is something that is something you'll never really fully understand unless you're that guy in that position.

On the day he had to retire

I'll never forget it. You know, it was like 17 different diagnoses, 17 things that were wrong with me. ... I knew there were some issues but I had no idea how extensive they were. ... They said: "We're initiating medical retirement proceedings because you can no longer perform your duties as Special Forces Green Beret." And that's a quote ... I'll never forget that. That was probably the hardest sentence I ever had to hear.

On how retirement affected his identity

I think [in] the military ... we identify ourselves by our job position or duty position. And after 21 years of service, I identified myself: I was a soldier. I was Special Forces Green Beret. That was my job. Yes, I was a father, I was a husband, a brother, a friend. But when I heard those words it was just difficult for me to process because it was almost like I was losing my identity. ...

I was dealing with not just the multiple traumatic brain injuries and neurological issues that come with that, but, you know, I had severe post-traumatic stress. I was ... finally having to face and deal with memories and things that I carried around from my first deployment as an 18-year-old in Somalia to my last deployments to Afghanistan. So it was very difficult for me. And unfortunately I was dealing with it through alcohol. ... I was self-medicating.

On his own art

During my hospitalization I was exposed to art therapy. ... You tell any Green Beret: "Hey, we're going to do some art," and I'm like, "What are you talking about. Art? ... I don't do any of this stuff." ... But I was like, "All right, I'll give it a try."

And, you know, I found the gift of art. I'm not saying I'm a gifted artist by any means. But I think art is a gift. ... Art allows us to express ourselves where words fall short. And it's not only an expression, but it's open to interpretation as well. It's a beautiful thing and I think everyone has an artist inside them.

I got into metalworking, blacksmithing, and I found the beauty in taking an unforgiving material or medium-like metal. I want to make something out of it, but the material wants to become something as well — and we kind of meet in the middle. ... It's more of a physical art and, me being a physical guy, I really enjoy the freedoms of expression that it provides to me.

On his hope that Bush's book will help bridge the divide between military and civilians

Joining the military is a personal choice. But you know what? Before any one of us joined the military we were Americans. Whether you serve or not ... that's the commonality we all share — we love our country. And I really hope that people when they read this book and see this ... they see we're just normal people. Veterans aren't that different. ...

My hope is that this book bridges that gap, because we all need to come together. ... The onus is on both communities. But at the end of the day, we're all Americans and I really think that this book will illustrate that.

Jessica Deahl, James Delahoussaye and Beth Novey contributed to this report.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

President George W. Bush's book of portraits of more than 60 soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who served in wars under his watch was published this week - "Portraits Of Courage: A Commander In Chief's Tribute to America's Warriors." President Bush has done a number of interviews in recent days talking about how he took up painting after leaving office and how he came to paint portraits of men and women that he sent in to war. We're joined by one of the president's subjects now. They call each other friends. Michael Rodriguez was a U.S. Army Special Forces Green Beret who served from 1992 to 2013 in Latin America, Somalia, Haiti, two tours in Afghanistan, nine deployments in 21 years. Michael Rodriguez joins us now from his home near Fort Bragg, N.C. Thanks so much for being with us.

MICHAEL RODRIGUEZ: Oh, thank you for having me.

SIMON: What do you think of your portrait?

RODRIGUEZ: Oh, wow. I'm, you know, I'm blown away that my former commander in chief would actually take the time to paint those that served under him. And I'm humbled that he selected me as one of them. I think it's a pretty good representation of me. I couldn't - I'm still kind of processing the whole thing.

SIMON: Well, it shows a man with a very strong face, very vivid lines, dark hair. Do you have two eyes that are of different color?

RODRIGUEZ: Yes, sir. So the story behind the colors of my eyes being different is I actually wear prosthetic lenses to help correct some of the neurological vision issues that I have, which are secondary to the number of brain injuries that I received in my service.

SIMON: You suffered how many concussions, Rod?

RODRIGUEZ: Probably in the neighborhood of about 12 that I can remember, like 12 significant ones. But, you know, through training and through a lot of deployments, you know, I'd probably had a few more than that when I was finally hospitalized for them. You know, when I sat down with the doctors, they were like, all right, let's figure this out. And I was like, I had never really taken a count of it. It's not like I was keeping score.

SIMON: All of that be noted, was it hard to stop being a Green Beret?

RODRIGUEZ: The day I was told, I'll never forget it. When I was fully diagnosed, I was in hospital at Bethesda and, you know, after they read the laundry list of diagnoses, you know, it was like 17 different diagnoses, 17 things that were wrong with me that - I kind of had an idea there were some, you know, I knew there were some issues. But I had no idea how extensive they were. And then afterwards, you know, they said, we're initiating medical retirement proceedings because you can no longer perform the duties as a Special Forces Green Beret. And that's a quote, you know, I'll never forget that. That was probably the hardest sentence I ever had to hear.

SIMON: Why? I mean, a lot of people would say wow, whoopee. Thanks. I'm not...

RODRIGUEZ: (Laughter) Well, I think the military particularly, socially we identify ourselves by our job position, our duty position. And after 21 years of service, you know, I identified myself. I was a soldier. I was Special Forces Green Beret. That was my job. Yes, I was a father, I was a husband, you know, a brother, a friend. But when I heard those words, it was just difficult for me to process because it was almost like I was losing my identity.

SIMON: Yeah. You suffered yourself, and you must have seen a lot of friends who suffered or died in combat, right?

RODRIGUEZ: Yes, sir. It's just kind of the nature of the work that we do in service to our great country is we're sent into harm's way at times. But those are choices that each and every one of us has made, so we definitely have our obstacles and, you know, face them.

SIMON: Were you ever angry at your commander in chief for sending you into war?

RODRIGUEZ: Oh, never. No. I've never been upset. You know, growing up, you know, I was a patriotic American. You know, my father's a Vietnam veteran, my grandfathers are World War II veterans. Heck, my wife's still active duty serving in the Army. She's a combat veteran. And even my oldest son is stationed here in the 82nd Airborne division. So we've - I've worked under all the presidents, you know, from President Bush to, you know, President Obama. And I've never been angry at my commander in chief. The burden of command is something that is something you'll never really fully understand unless you're that guy in that position. But I've always been supportive of all my commanders in chief.

SIMON: You're doing art yourself, I gather?

RODRIGUEZ: Yes. Yes, I am. So during my hospitalization, I was exposed to art therapy. You know, you tell any Green Beret like, hey, we're going to do some art. And I'm like what are you talking about? I'm not - art? But I was like, all right, I'll give it a try. And, you know, I found the gift of art. And I'm not saying I'm a gifted artist by any means, but, I mean, I think art is a gift.

SIMON: Going through this book, it's pictures of veterans. You know, they're not in battle finery with battle ribbons. It's just regular guys and women. Do you think these portraits can help those of us who've never served understand those who have done so much?

RODRIGUEZ: I am really glad you brought that up because I really hope that people when they read this book and see this, they see that we're just normal people. Veterans aren't that different. We're not different. I don't - you know, we're not that different from your average American citizen. It's just we had a different career choice. We chose a different path. And we were placed into certain circumstances and have different experiences. You know, at the end of the day, we're all Americans, and I really think that this book will illustrate that.

SIMON: Michael Rodriguez is one of more than 60 U.S. military veterans painted by President George W. Bush and featured in the president's new book, "Portraits of Courage." Rod, thank you for being with us, and thank you for your service.

RODRIGUEZ: Oh, thank you for your time. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.