DALLAS — George W. Bush says that after eight years in the White House, he's happy to be back home in Texas and out of the spotlight.
But the former commander-in-chief tells The Associated Press there's one aspect of his presidency he still misses: interaction with U.S. troops. And Bush, who sent them to wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, says that despite his desire to remain largely out of the public eye, he wants to make sure veterans and military members know they still have his support.
"I was a little concerned that our veterans don't think that I still respect them and care for them a lot," Bush told the AP. He added later, "There's nothing as courageous in my judgment as someone who had a leg blown off in combat overcoming the difficulties."
Bush is hosting next week's Warrior Open golf tournament in suburban Dallas, an event featuring members of the U.S. Armed Forces wounded while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, including those who lost limbs and suffered brain injuries. Bush joined more than a dozen wounded military members in the Warrior 100 – a 62-mile mountain bike ride he hosted in West Texas last spring.
These public appearances are the exception to the lifestyle Bush has led in his post-presidency.
After leaving office two years ago, Bush and former first lady Laura Bush bought a house in Dallas and started work on the George W. Bush Presidential Center, slated to open in 2013. He has attended select events relating to the center, as well as a ceremony with President Barack Obama marking the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. But he has largely remained out of the public eye.
Bush said he doesn't want veterans to mistake his private nature with a lack of appreciation for what they've done on the battlefield.
"They hadn't seen me and they hadn't seen me with the troops," he said. "So therefore I am using mountain biking and golf to stay connected with the military, people who served during my presidency."
Military members and veterans groups have generally held Bush in high regard, despite the nationwide protests and international controversy that grew more fervent as the American death toll grew in Afghanistan and Iraq under his command.
More than 1,680 military members have died in Afghanistan since the U.S. began bombing there in October 2001, while more than 4,470 military members have died in Iraq since the war began there in March 2003. Another 46,000 have been wounded in both campaigns.
"What I'm concerned about is that Americans forget the sacrifice," Bush said. "I don't think they are right now, but one of my objectives is to make sure they never do."
Bush, who since leaving office also has made appearances at events for organizations that benefit troops, said he gets inspiration from meeting members of the military who have overcome serious injuries. He said there's not much he misses about the presidency, but added he does miss being commander-in-chief because he has "great respect for those men and women who wear the uniform."
Brian "Ski" Donarski, 43, is among the veterans Bush has invited to the two-day golf tournament that starts Monday. The Army first lieutenant was seriously wounded when a mine blew up in Iraq in 2006 and spent 13 months rehabilitating from a traumatic brain injury, a fracture in his neck, bulged disks in his back and undergoing shoulder surgery.
Though Bush has spent most of the past couple of years out of the limelight, Donarski never doubted the former president's commitment to the troops.
"I know he didn't forget us," he said.
David Hartley, police chief of the small southeast Texas town of Hempstead, also supports Bush, even after losing his 25-year-old son, Staff Sgt. Jeffrey Lee Hartley, in 2008 in Iraq. For the last two years, the chief has organized the Watermelon Run for the Fallen in Hempstead to raise money for organizations that help veterans and their families. Hartley, whose last run drew about 3,500 people, also said he's never doubted the Republican president's commitment to the troops.
"The man literally cares for our troops and I have the upmost respect for him," Hartley said. "Everything he does, he does from his heart."
Besides interacting with veterans and service members, Bush plans to stay involved in public policy through his already-active institute, which focuses on education reform, global health, human freedom and economic growth.
But, he makes clear, "I don't miss the fame." He said he and Laura are content with their life back in Texas, where he served as governor for six years before winning the presidency.
"We've got a lot of friends down here," Bush said. "It's been fun to reconnect with them."