TCS Daily

A Mile and a Promise

By Ralph Kinney Bennett - July 15, 2004 12:00 AM

This sounds like a scene from some weepy, bad movie.

There's this young Army National Guard sergeant lying in bed at an Army hospital.

He's really down. He lost his right leg to a landmine in Afghanistan. Lot of hustle and bustle out in the hall. Someone's coming to visit the wounded.

Turns out it's the President of the United States.

He stops by the young sergeant's bed. They talk. It's a little awkward. What do you say to a guy that loves to run, loves physical activity, and now his leg is gone from the knee down.

But this sergeant tries to be upbeat and he's been told all about prosthetic legs and he has resolved that, dammit, one day he'll run again.

The President is impressed. Tell you what, he says to the sergeant, let's keep in touch and when you're ready to run a mile I'll run it with you.

Yeah, sure.

But, sure enough, a year and a half later, there's this young sergeant in shorts and an Army windbreaker, running on his prosthetic leg. And running beside him? The President of the United States.

Yeah, sure.

Well, this story is true. It really happened.

The young soldier is named Michael McNaughton, from a little place called Denham Springs, La. And the President is George Bush.

Cynical journalist that I am, my first impulse when hearing about it from a friend was to check those "Urban Legends" pages on the web. It all checks out.

Here are the facts.

Staff Sgt. McNaughton, of the 769th Engineer Battalion, was helping clear mines near Bagram Air Base, in Afghanistan on January 9, 2003. A mine exploded directly under him. "I closed my eyes for a second going up in the air and then landing on the ground," he recalls. "And that's when I just... I knew exactly what happened."

Blood and shock. His right leg was blown off and the middle and ring fingers of his right hand as well.

Evacuated immediately to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, in Germany, McNaughton was later flown to Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Washington, D.C., to receive follow-on care, begin therapy and be fitted for a prosthetic leg. He had to undergo 11 surgeries on the way to recovery.

One day President Bush came to visit him and other soldiers at the hospital. Fishing for subjects of common interest, the two came to running. That's when the President made his friendly challenge within a promise. Get that new leg working and we'll run. Just call me.

Sgt. McNaughton wasn't sure about "just calling" the President of the United States, but through one of the Walter Reed doctors, the two kept in touch during his months of slow recovery and therapy.

One rainy day this past April, Sgt. McNaughton and his family were guests at the White House. President Bush and the sergeant went up to the weight room on the second floor of the Executive Mansion. There they worked out and chatted for almost an hour. Bush was fascinated by McNaughton's new "leg" and asked many questions about it.

Then they went out in the rain to run. Just the two of them. "I didn't care if it was storming or lightning all around," Sgt. McNaughton later told a Baton Rouge television reporter. "I didn't care. It was nice to run with him."

One of McNaughton's best Army buddies, Capt. Justin P. Dodge, MD, a Flight Surgeon with the 1-2 Aviation Regiment, U.S. Army Medical Corps, was so impressed by what the President did that he sent friends what "almost sounds like a corny email chain letter" about it.

It's "not something you'll see in the news," wrote Capt. Dodge, "but seeing the President taking the time to say thank you to the wounded and to give hope to one of my best friends was one of the greatest/best things I have seen in my life... God bless him."

I've winced more than once when I hear our President speaking in public. He doesn't exactly have the grand style with words. But I've also noticed that he's pretty good at what I'd call just hanging out with people.

He talks, after all, like most of us do.

Who hasn't stumbled for words, made a lame joke, kind of just bulled their way through an awkward moment at the bedside of someone who is really sick? I know I have.

I don't know the exact words President Bush used when bantering with Sgt. McNaughton.

But I know he kept his word.

That's important.


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