TERLINGUA, Texas — Kenneth Butler touched the metal end of his prosthetic arm instinctively as he recalled the horrors he witnessed in Iraq.
Four years after losing his limb when his vehicle was hit by a bomb in Baghdad, the retired army staff sergeant got his first chance this week to meet former President George W. Bush during a three-day bike ride in West Texas attended by more than a dozen other wounded veterans and cycling legend Lance Armstrong.
Bush rode in the event for a chance to meet with veterans and thank them for their sacrifice. But for Butler, he holds no ill will toward the man who sent thousands of Americans to war in 2003.
“I feel his compassion,” the retired parachute infantry squad leader said Wednesday, with a note of melancholy. “It feels like he really cares about us.”
Bush and 15 wounded veterans were joined Wednesday in the last leg of a 62.5-mile ride through the rugged desert trails of Big Bend National Park by Armstrong, a seven-time Tour de France champion.
Although Bush acknowledges struggling to keep up during the trek, he said he relished the opportunity.
“As a commander in chief, it was my decision to put them in harm’s way in the first place,” he said. “I feel a special bond toward them and I want them to know I’ll never forget them.”
More than 1,400 U.S. troops have died and more than 11,000 have been injured in Afghanistan since Bush ordered a war on terror in 2001. More than 3,500 U.S. military personnel died and more than 32,000 have been wounded in Iraq since fighting started there two years later.
The losses endured by so many veterans and their families prompted Armstrong to make a surprise appearance Wednesday to thank the troops for their efforts overseas.
Downplaying the athletic feats revered by sports fans across the country, the Austin native recalled meeting a soldier in Germany who had just lost his leg and wanted to set a record for regaining his walking ability. “Now that’s heroic”, Armstrong said.
The cyclist also teased the former president, recalling the athleticism Bush showed last time they rode together in 2005.
“Today he started fast but then he kind of blew a gasket,” Armstrong joked.
The 64-year-old Bush retorted: “Well, I’m eligible for Medicare next year.”
The former president also joked about his inability to keep up with the veterans, whose war injuries did little to slow them down.
“I’m riding as hard as I possibly can and I look over my shoulder and there’s a one-legged guy barely breathing. … I am in awe of our troops”, Bush said.
The event was organized by the Wounded Warrior program, a nonprofit organization that helps veterans seriously injured in Afghanistan or Iraq.
While not cycling, Bush spent time mingling with the veterans over the last three days, discussing everything from barbecue to bicycle gear.
Andy Hatcher, a 27-year-old retired Marine sergeant who lost his right foot in a Thanksgiving 2004 explosion in Fallujah, said he didn’t discuss war during the dinner chat he had with Bush.
“This was about riding bikes, not embracing tragedy,” Hatcher said.