Last week, I traveled to Palo Duro Canyon State Park, just outside of Armarillo, Texas to ride in a 100 kilometer mountain bike ride with former President George W. Bush and 20 severely wounded veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns.
When he was in the White House the former president often wasn't treated fairly by the news media. But up close and personal, I found the former president’s likability to be through the roof.
Mano a mano, he was relaxed, witty and wise. After the first day’s ride, for example, he urged the other bikers on by joking, “I’m on Medicare, and you’re on one leg, so let’s get to bed after dinner and get some sleep.”
But most importantly, it was clear that the former president cares deeply about the vets who had been severely wounded in the wars he had started as commander in chief.
Bush feels personally responsible for these men and women, and he is very comfortable as one of them.
And let me be clear, this event was no photo op. He tolerates the camera but he never plays to it.
Mr. Bush is a true mountain biker, and when he wasn’t leading the pack through the 100 degree heat on tortuous single track trails he was helping amputees, such as West Point instructor Major Dan Gade -- whose amputation is so high up that he rides a one pedal bicycle -- make it up the hills.
The hills we climbed during this 100-kilometer ride were metaphoric as well as real; the trip was about overcoming injuries and more, and about working together as a team to help and inspire each other not only to finish the course but to return to useful roles in American society.
Major Dan, for example, is an inspiration. He never succumbs in spirit to the limitations imposed by his leg, he simply considers it a limitation to overcome.
In fact, he went so far as to tell me that his children have learned from their father’s disability to treat others with greater respect -- no matter what their race, affliction, or ideology.
In addition to Team Dan there was also Team Melissa.
Melissa is Army First Lieutenant Melissa Stockwell (ret.) who was hit by a roadside bomb in Iraq in 2004. The injury left her with an above-the-knee amputation. She is now a certified prosthetist who fits other amputees while competing internationally in the para-triathlon.
During the ride both Teams Dan and Melissa drew on the teamwork of other vets and riders to help push the amputees up hills they couldn’t otherwise climb.
A key feature of the ride was rewarding the progress of all the riders who participated in it.
By day three I was receiving hand slaps and pats on the back because my technique had improved.
But it was far more important for everyone to see Melissa making it -- unaided -- up and down hills that she hadn't been able to handle before.
Or, to witness Marine Corps veteran David A. Wright, a victim of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, severe depression, and traumatic brain injury, return to his bike on the third day after a much-needed breather from the first day’s 100 degree heat.
Of course, many of the wounds from the wars these men and women have served in are also unseen; healing requires nurturing and group support in all cases.
Towards the end of the ride, we encountered a cliff with an American flag on it. As we rode closer, we saw the former president himself perched at the top, personally encouraging and inspiring the riders up one of the final tough climbs.
When President Bush spoke to me on Saturday evening following the conclusion of the ride, he flattered me by saying I had "defied expectations," "showed tenacity," "refused to quit, accomplishing what others thought I couldn't."
But he was really talking about the veterans, men like Dan Gade and David Wright, and women like Melissa Stockwell.
He was also talking about himself, too.
I was infused with energy from the never-say-die wounded warriors, inspired to do the undoable, and so was he, President George W. Bush, proud and strong, an indomitable man who never quits.
Marc Siegel, MD is an associate professor of medicine and medical director of Doctor Radio at NYU Langone Medical Center. He is a member of the Fox News Medical A Team and author of several books. His latest is "The Inner Pulse; Unlocking the Secret Code of Sickness and Health."