President George W. Bush stands at his easel in his studio painting portraits of veterans

Painting a Tribute: Presidential Exhibit Brings Veterans’ Stories to Life

“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.”

This quote from President George W. Bush greets visitors at the entrance of Portraits of Courage: A Commander in Chief’s Tribute to America’s Warriors. The exhibit features a collection of 66 paintings and one mural he painted featuring American military veterans—many of whom he’s come to know personally. Target is a sponsor of the exhibit, open now through Oct. 1 at the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas. Here’s a preview of what’s inside:

George W. Bush Portraits of Courage Event

The exhibit features 66 paintings and one mural George W. Bush painted of military veterans.

The veterans’ portraits and personal stories are also captured in a commemorative book, available at Target. The author’s profits will be donated to the Bush Institute’s Military Service Initiative, helping post-9/11 veterans and their families successfully transition to civilian life and find meaningful employment. As a longtime supporter of the military, Target does our part to help through pledges to the Veteran Jobs Mission, the White House’s Joining Forces initiative, and many other community partnerships that benefit service members.

“We’re honored to support the Portraits of Courage exhibit,” says Laysha Ward, chief external engagement officer, Target, “and proud to be a part of this effort that’s helping to tell the stories of American heroes and inspire others to get involved in projects that will help our brave service men and women across the country.”

As the exhibit’s doors opened for the first time today, we sat down with President Bush to hear more about how the project came to life.

What prompted you to start this project?
One of my art instructors, Sedrick Huckaby, suggested that I paint the portraits of people I knew but others didn’t. Immediately, I thought of the wounded warriors I’ve come to know through the Bush Institute’s military work, including our W100K mountain bike ride and our Warrior Open golf tournament. I wanted to reflect the energy and resilience of these men and women, and bring attention to their determination to overcome their injuries and continue to serve their country—either in the military or out of it.

You’ve met so many veterans and their families over the years. Why is it important to keep their stories alive?
Painting these men and women is a way for me to honor their service to the country and show my respect for their sacrifice and courage. But this book and exhibit also draw attention to the need for all of us to better recognize to the challenges that some warriors face when they come home and transition from military to civilian life. We need to better address issues like employment and wellness, including invisible wounds like post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury.

How does painting help you express your feelings about the connections you’ve made with people?
Each of these paintings was done with a lot of care and respect. I studied their stories and photographs of each warrior, and while I painted them, I thought about their backgrounds and their families and the issues they dealt with as a result of combat. However, this is more than just the art of a novice. This is a heartfelt tribute to the millions of men and women who have served in our military, and who volunteered to defend our country, many in the years after 9/11. It allows me to express all that in ways I can’t do with my limited mastery of the English language.

In your book, you share a story about each of your portrait subjects. Tell us about one that really stands out to you.
Each of their stories is uniquely remarkable, and I’ve been honored that they’ve shared their stories with me—and allowed me to share them with the world. To a person, the men and women in this book are inspirational. One person I know especially well is Dave Smith, who came to our 2012 W100K in Amarillo, Texas. Dave is a gregarious, energetic guy with a big smile. One night during the ride, he had the courage to stand up and share with a crowded room that just a month prior, he had considered taking his own life. Thankfully, Dave sought counseling and treatment, confronted his trauma, and began rebuilding his life. He was motivated by three things: his relationship with Christ, his fellow veterans, and his fiancée, Katrine. He now uses his experience to help others. After people read Dave’s story, I think many Americans who may be struggling with their own problems will be motivated to overcome them.

How do you hope the exhibit and the book will impact and inspire people?
I hope that people will better recognize the responsibility we all have in better serving our post-9/11 veterans, especially it helping them make smooth transitions to civilian life. At the Bush Institute, we believe that knowing our vets is the first step to honoring their sacrifice and courage, so we’ve created a library of resources at bushcenter.org to tackle issue like employment and wellness.

Here are a few specific things we can all do: 1) Change the way we think about the invisible wounds of war, so that we eliminate stigma and stereotypes from our own perception of these injuries. With effective treatment, invisible wounds can be overcome. 2) Hire, develop, retain and support veteran employees and their spouses. And 3) Learn about and support effective organizations that serve warriors and their families.

Equally important, I hope that veterans who may be dealing with invisible wounds of war recognize that they have nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, it’s courageous to recognize, talk about, and seek help for these wounds. Because with proper treatment, they can be overcome, and these tremendous national assets can continue to contribute to our country.

Why is it important for companies to be active supporters of the military and veterans?
Empowering and supporting warriors and their families requires a coalition of the willing—the government cannot do it alone. When companies like Target, nonprofit organizations, academia, and individuals join together with the public sector, great things can be accomplished. Hiring a veteran isn’t an act of compassion—it’s good business. These are talented, courageous people who have represented our country well in unbelievably challenging circumstances. They are the kind of people you want representing your company. By supporting and enabling our Nation’s warriors in their new missions as civilians, we can unleash the potential of a generation of resourceful, determined, and experienced leaders for the good of our country.

Want to see more? Check out a few of the works in the collection:

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