Orestimba High graduate gets to meet his C-in-C

May 6, 2009 

From across the room in one of Saddam Hussein's former dictatorial digs, Mike Chavez watched the president of the United States get a lesson in pin protocol.

Barack Obama, Chavez learned, is a quick study.

"He actually pinned Purple Hearts on two soldiers," said Chavez, a 27-year-old Army staff sergeant from Newman. "It was the first time he'd pinned a medal on a soldier since he's been president. They had to give him a briefing on how to clip it on."

Valuable instruction, indeed. The last thing a soldier needs after recovering from one wound is to suffer a new one at the hands of a rookie commander-in-chief.

No problem. Obama pinned the medals on without drawing blood. No need to award yet another Purple Heart.

Chavez was known as Chavez-Corona when he graduated from Orestimba High School in 2000. Today, count him among the 13 soldiers who met Obama last month during his first official visit to Iraq as president. Obama's five-hour swing into Iraq included a visit to Baghdad's Al-Paw Palace, now part of a compound called Camp Victory.

Chavez got to meet the president and chat for a few seconds before they posed for a couple of photos. This happened one month ago today and just a few weeks before Chavez ended his third tour of duty in Iraq, where he oversaw communications at Army headquarters.

As you might expect, Chavez found it thrilling to meet the president. He learned of the opportunity the day before the visit, and had to keep it a secret for obvious security reasons. Consequently, he couldn't tell his mother, Rebeca Corona of Modesto, until Obama left the country later that day.

Chavez and the other soldiers were joined in the room by a dozen or so higher-ups and a narrator who briefed the president on each soldier.

"He walks in and they say, 'Commander-in-chief' and we all snap to attention," Chavez said. "I guess they wanted people who had done multiple tours of duty. I had been decorated with three Army commendation awards. That was pretty much a factor."

And it didn't hurt that as they awaited Obama's arrival, one of the officers asked the group how many had voted for him.

"I was the only one in the room who raised his hand," Chavez said. "I always had a good opinion of him. I always supported him."

When it came Chavez's turn to meet Obama, the narrator told the president about Chavez's duties and service record.

Nervous? Nah. Obama was calm. Oh, and so was Chavez.

"When he came up to me, (the narrator) said my name and I walked up to the president," Chavez said. "My nervousness went away. I said, 'It's a pleasure to meet you, sir.' He said, 'No, the pleasure's all mine.' "

After meeting all of the soldiers, Obama told them they were the epitome of the American spirit and that it was truly a pleasure to come to Iraq and show his respect.

"It takes lots of guts for someone as high-ranking as he to visit a place like that," Chavez said. "Even when Bush did it, though I didn't agree with a lot of his policies, you've got to respect a guy who does support the troops and came out here."

After Obama left, Chavez finally could tell his mom about the visit.

"I was having my nails done and he text-messaged me, 'Your son with the boss,' " Corona said. "When I saw the picture, I thought it was a joke he'd made up. Then I realized it was real. I forwarded it to everyone I knew."

Including brothers Eduardo and Oscar in Modesto, and relatives in Texas and Oregon.

"We're really proud of him," she said. "It's pretty amazing."

As for Chavez, he's a career man who returned last weekend to his home base of Fort Drum in upstate New York. He'll stay there until September, when he'll transfer to Fort Lewis, Wash., near Seattle.

"I've been trying to get closer to home since I joined the Army — without going to Barstow (Fort Irwin)," said Chavez, who enlisted in 2002.

That, in terms of the searing heat, would remind him too much of Iraq, where Chavez ended his most recent tour with a presidential handshake in the one-time palace of a now-dead dictator.

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com or 578-2383.

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