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 Home > News & Policies > April 2003

For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
April 11, 2003

Press Gaggle with Ari Fleischer and Rear Admiral Donald Arthur
National Naval Medical Center
Bethesda, Maryland

4:00 P.M. EDT

ADMIRAL ARTHUR: They run the gamut, really, of relatively minor injuries -- that is, just a broken leg or broken arm, to life-threatening injuries with tracheostomies and bowel perforations, very, very sick people in intensive care.

But I'll tell you, they have one thing in common -- they have the spirit of the Marine Corps. They all want to get back to their fellow Marines in Iraq. They all are despondent because they're here, not there. And they all want to be leading Marines. They're a very motivating bunch.

We have one fellow who was run over by a tank -- a 70-ton tank, and he was brought in here in a stretcher. We didn't know if he was going to walk again. Five days later he's out of the ICU; in five days, which is right now, he's up walking on the ward, going from room to room, motivating his fellow Marines, "you can do it, you can get out of bed." And they call him Tank.

They're wondering what happened to the tank and they want to charge him for damage to the tank. (Laughter.) Incredibly motivating people. We told him we wouldn't charge him.

Q Can we get his name? Is that all right?

ADMIRAL ARTHUR: Let me just ask our PA if it's all right, because I haven't asked him if it's okay. You can just call him Tank. He'll know who it is. (Laughter.)

Q Did Tank talk to the President?

ADMIRAL ARTHUR: He did. Every Marine talked with the President. And we have one Corpsman. You know, the Navy supplies corpsmen to the Marine Corps. And one corpsman went out to rescue, really, a staff sergeant whose leg was blown off by a grenade -- by a mine. And the corpsman ended up having one of his legs blown off by a mine, as well, running to the aid of his staff sergeant.

MR. FLEISCHER: The two shared that story with the President. They were in bed-by-bed, side-by-side in the same room, each with a missing leg. And the first Marine told that story to the President about how his buddy came to get him.

Q The President seemed to be torn up about the whole -- I mean, he seemed teary-eyed.

MR. FLEISCHER: I'll get into that. I'll walk you through a couple things.

Q How many people are treated here, generally speaking, at any given time? How many hospital beds are there? Give us an idea of the overall picture of the place.

ADMIRAL ARTHUR: We can take about 190 patients. We are not at full capacity because we have sent about 1,200 of our staff out to the battlefield. We have almost a thousand on the USNS Comfort. So we've got a lot of folks who are not here. But we have some reserve support, and the reserves have just come right in and are doing a great job.

I'll tell you, the Marines are motivating our staff, as well as our staff motivating the Marines. It's a very symbiotic relationship.

Q Thank you.

ADMIRAL ARTHUR: You're welcome.

MR. FLEISCHER: Okay. Thank you. It's a pleasure to meet you.

Q If you can get any information on "Mr. Tank," we would appreciate it.

MR. FLEISCHER: I can give you a bunch of names. Let me do the facts first.

Q Is this on the record, by the way?

MR. FLEISCHER: Yes. The Purple Hearts were awarded to Sergeant First-Class Thomas Douglas of Fayetteville, North Carolina; Staff Sergeant Lance Vandaniker from Sevierville, Tennessee; Specialist Kevin Osgood of Dimebox, Texas; Private Fernando Gonzalez, Riverside, Georgia; Corporal Shane Woods of Dubois, Pennsylvania.

Q All Purple Hearts?

MR. FLEISCHER: All Purple Hearts awarded by the President.

Q That includes over at Walter Reed?


Q Are two of these guys the guys who lost their legs?

MR. FLEISCHER: I'll get to that. No, I don't think -- they got the Purple Heart issued previously.

Sergeant Eric Torres of Gulf Breeze, Florida. And there are others who we just don't have -- they haven't signed their waivers yet, so I can't give out their names.

Here in Bethesda -- that was all Walter Reed. Bethesda, the Purple Hearts were awarded to Captain Jeff Houston -- which I will tell you a story about him. This was remarkable. Of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Lance Corporal Scott Carey of Gillette, Wyoming; Private First-Class Ross Naviewski of Yuma, Arizona. And the two Marines who were sworn in as citizens, which is a story I need to tell you about, is Master Gunnery Sergeant Guadalupe Denogean of Tucson, Arizona; and Lance Corporal OJ Santamaria of Daly City, California.

Gunnery Sergeant Denogean is from Mexico, and Lance Corporal Santamaria is from the Philippines.

Now, the Gunnery Sergeant was on his way to becoming a citizen because he had been in the country long enough to apply and go through. Lance Corporal OJ Santamaria from the Philippines was only able, today, to become a citizen because of the executive order that the President signed in West Virginia last July 4th.

Now, at the ceremony where they were sworn in -- they were sworn in by the Director of the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services, Eduardo Aguirre, Jr. It was a very moving ceremony. And this was what the President was referring to when he was talking about the highlights of it.

The first one to be sworn in was Gunnery Sergeant Denogean. He took the oath -- it was administered to him. The President hugged him, called him, "my fellow American." His wife had her arm around the President as the oath was being administered, and she was sobbing throughout the whole service. He had shrapnel wounds as a result of an ambush in Southern Iraq.

Then came time for the Lance Corporal to be sworn in. And he was, literally, hooked up to a blood transfusion as the swearing-in took place. He got up off a chair, which was hard for him to do, stood up. Halfway through the oath he broke down crying, just sobbing. And the Admiral said he was sobbing from both pain because of his injuries, but also sobbing to become a citizen of our country.

It really was moving. I mean, it was one of these scenes -- everybody was just caught up in it. The President said to him, "My fellow American. You're a good man. I'm proud of you." He said, "What a moving moment. We're proud to have you as Americans."

He also had no family with him, he was alone. His family could not come in for it.

Q Did the first one have family with him?

MR. FLEISCHER: The first one had family with him. He had his wife and his mother. And he was wounded -- shrapnel wound in Southern Iraq. And the President said to him, "I'll never forget this moment."

Q Can you give the top of what the President said to this one, before "What a moving moment."

MR. FLEISCHER: He said, "My fellow American. You're a good man. I'm proud of you. What a moving moment. We're proud to have you as an American."

I mean, it's amazing -- halfway through he just broke down. He had a very hard time getting through -- he was in a lot of pain. And for him to stand on his feet as a Marine, in the presence of the Commander-in-Chief -- and then the President saying, sit down; he wanted to stand. He had to complete the oath. And sobbing, he completed it.

Q Do you know what his injuries were?

MR. FLEISCHER: It looked to me -- I don't -- his shoulder, and I think the Admiral said his shoulder was severely, just blown up, is how the Admiral put it. And he literally had the blood transfusion hooked up behind him and into him as it all took place.

Q What were they wearing? Are they wearing like hospital garb of some sort? Greens?

MR. FLEISCHER: Some people were in hospital garb; some people were in uniforms, or part of their uniforms. These two, I believe they were in hospital garb.

Now, I can tell you some other --

Q A question about the citizenship. Was that the very last thing the President did?

MR. FLEISCHER: No, that was the first thing that the President saw. Actually, no, upon arrival at Bethesda, he awarded the two Purple Hearts to the two Marines, both of whom were wounded in Nasiriyah. And then this was the second moment.

Q And then he went around and visited with more folks?

MR. FLEISCHER: Then he went room to room to room. He probably visited with some 75, all told. Some of them were private, one-on-one's in the rooms; others with their families there. Others were there were a collection of Marines or Army, soldiers in the room.

Q Do we know where Mr. Santamaria was injured?

MR. FLEISCHER: Nasiriyah.

Other stories -- Captain Houston, who received the Purple Heart, had a tracheotomy in his throat. He could not speak. That's -- so he wrote the President notes. And the President said to him, "I'm here to thank you." He had a gunshot wound to the neck. He's expected to get his voice back.

Q He wrote Bush a note, did he, did you say?

MR. FLEISCHER: That was the only way he could communicate with the President. He had to write notes.

Q What did he say?

MR. FLEISCHER: I could barely see it, but based on the President's reaction -- because the President said, "I'm here to thank you." I think he wrote the President a note thanking him. And that's why the President said to him, "I'm here to thank you." I mean, he literally could not speak.

Q But he is expected to get his voice back?

MR. FLEISCHER: He is expected to get his voice back.

Other rooms -- one room he walked into, there were six Marines, five of whom were in wheelchairs. I think -- you have to imagine, this -- unbelievably young, strong-looking people who are now in wheelchairs. And the President walked in one room and he said, "The Marine Corps is awesome. Just ask the other side."

In one room he walked into, a Marine who was shot with an RPG -- he said to him, "I'm in the presence of a hero." The Marine said to the President, "I want to thank you on behalf of every other Marine for letting us do our job."

The President said to him, "Were you ready?" He said, "Hell, yes." Then he said, "I'll do it again when I'm ready to go back."

That's something the Admiral talked about -- a lot of them did tell the President that that's where they wanted to be, is back.

Let me see. If you want, I can go back to some of the other -- at the first stop. Oh, yeah, there was one person he met with who survived a suicide bombing attack in northwest Iraq. He was a Ranger.

Q The one that killed the three others?

MR. FLEISCHER: I don't know what happened with the others. The President said to him, "You look great. Thank you for your service." He asked one of them, "How did you get hurt?" Now, this is back at Walter Reed. And he said, "I can't remember."

He met with one soldier who was still -- he was barely conscious. The family of the soldier was saying how much the visit meant, but the soldier couldn't speak. Really, a real lack of consciousness.

Q What about the story that the one guy had his leg blown off, and then the guy who came to rescue him --

MR. FLEISCHER: His buddy? Yes, that was here in Bethesda. Okay, in that room, where the two were missing their legs, the President said to one of them -- because he was from Austin -- he said, "I'll make you a prediction: You'll be running on Town Lake if you want to."

And the President would talk about prosthesis and how the technology is so good these days -- because he had somebody on his staff when he was governor who had an artificial leg who could run with the governor. And so the President has seen the ability of technology to let people who have lost their legs, get a prothesis upon which these guys can run. And so he said that to a lot of these people, that, you're going to be running again.

There was one guy who said he ran marathons, and the President said, "You'll be able to run again."

So in this room there were the two buddies. He walked in -- and it was right after the swearing-in ceremony -- he went into that room with the two guys missing their legs. And the President said to them, "I just saw an amazing, powerful ceremony. This is a great country because of guys like yourself."

And then they talked to the President about their story. He stepped on a mine, and then his friend came over to try to help him, and he stepped on a mine. And the President said to them, "Saddam Hussein is sorry he met you. I'm proud of our Marines."

Q That story was covered, it should be in all the newspapers. The story of those two guys that lost their legs.

MR. FLEISCHER: Oh, is it really?

Q They had a press conference.

MR. FLEISCHER: So you can get their names?

Q Yes, it's on-line.

MR. FLEISCHER: Okay, good.

Q It's out there? Is that what you're saying?

MR. FLEISCHER: I don't have their names.

Q I'll try to put it in the pool report.

MR. FLEISCHER: Okay. At Walter Reed he walked in the first room and -- "I'm real proud of you." "Are you getting good care?" "That's the least we can do." "You're brave men." This was the Purple Heart ceremony.

Q Ari, was the Purple Heart ceremony -- were they all together? Or was that something he did individually as he went around?

MR. FLEISCHER: Here it was all together. Well, here, two of them were together and then Captain Houston was separate. Captain Houston was in his bed.

Q Three total?

MR. FLEISCHER: Three here, and then at Walter Reed it was different rooms, he went from room to room.

Q How many were at Walter Reed, do you remember?

MR. FLEISCHER: How many? He went to, I think, 13 different places at Walter Reed, 13 rooms.

Q How many Purple Hearts all together?

MR. FLEISCHER: Walter Reed, seven. I was able to give you six names. He said to one of them, "You'll be up and at 'em really soon."

A lot of laughter, interestingly. He was saying things that lightened the mood in some of these rooms. All of them with their families were asking the President for pictures and he'd kid, he'd say, "I'm going to use this one on my Christmas card"

-- the President said that at one point.

Q Who said that?

MR. FLEISCHER: The President.

Q -- his picture?

MR. FLEISCHER: Yes. This is all what happened. They'd get their picture taken with the President and the President would joke with them and say, "I may use this on my Christmas card."

What I'm trying to convey is the mood of it. It was an uplifting mood, for the most part.

Q It was an unrelieved sadness. Did everyone get their photograph taken? Did Eric --

MR. FLEISCHER: Every single one of them, yes. Oh, yes, Eric was there for all of it.

Q So he snapped a shot of every single visit, right?

MR. FLEISCHER: Correct. He repeatedly would say to them, "This is for the country and for freedom." One -- this was at Walter Reed -- one guy said, "Losing my leg doesn't bother me a bit." And then he asked the President to sign a football that he had in the room. And he said to the President, "You look like yourself on TV." (Laughter.)

The third room he entered was where there was the soldier who was not really conscious. He had a head injury. He was Special Ops. The President referred to him as "the best of the best."

The President said to a couple of them, "I'm honored to be on the same team." He'd constantly say, "Where do you call home?" "Where are you from?" One guy said, "Texas." The President joked, "Give him two Purple Hearts." (Laughter.)

Another thing he constantly was saying to people is, "I'm real proud of your son." "You should be real proud of your son."

Q Anybody need anything further?

Q That's good.

Q One other thing. Is the guy who was unconscious here, what condition was he in? Because they tell us everybody here was in satisfactory condition.

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, you know, I'm not -- I don't know the medical terminology, if they would call him "stable" or "serious." But on the list I had, everybody was --

Q This was at Walter Reed? The guy who was unconscious was at Walter Reed?

MR. FLEISCHER: Yes, Walter Reed.

Q Oh, he was? Okay.

MR. FLEISCHER: Yes, it was Walter Reed. One other thing you should just note. At Walter Reed there was one guy there who was injured in the fragging incident, where the -- one member of the 101st rolled a grenade into the tent of our own guys. He met one of those people.

Q Is that the Purple Heart recipient?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the guy probably got his Purple Heart already. He was not one of the ones the President gave it to. The President, when he met him, he said, "He deserves the best."

There were a couple people from Afghanistan here. One guy from Afghanistan was injured, and he said, "My little brother is in Iraq and I'd love to go join" -- I guess that should be "him," I wrote "us" -- "I'd love to go join him."

Another guy was hit by Iraqis dressed as civilians, told the President that story.


Q All right. Thanks, Ari.

Q Thanks, Ari.

END 4:20 P.M. EDT