Recognized in a SOTU, Then What?


Last week in his State of the Union (SOTU) address, President Trump recognized a number of “ordinary citizens” in the gallery, continuing the practice begun by President Reagan in 1982. This year the group included four members and veterans of the military or their families: 

  • Tony Rankins who served in the US Army in Afghanistan, suffered from PTSD and drug addiction but who with help from his community overcame his addiction.
  • Charles McGee (who I mentioned in last week’s post) a former Tuskegee Airman who flew 409 missions during 30 years of service in three wars and was made Brigadier General. Also recognized was Iain Lanphier, McGee’s great-grandson. 
  • Kelli and Gage Hake, the widow and son of Army Staff Sergeant Christopher Hake. Hake was killed during his second tour of duty in Iraq.  
  • Amy, Elliana, and Rowan Williams, wife and children of Sergeant First Class Townsend Williams who is serving on his fourth tour of duty in the Middle East. 

I wondered what effect the spotlight and their fifteen minutes of fame might have on their lives. Would it be a life changing event? Would it be talked about for a period of time and then be relegated to the record books, old films, and the family’s photo albums? What would become of these extraordinary ordinary citizens.

Lenny Skutnik was the first of these individuals to be recognized at a SOTU.

In 1982, Ronald Reagan turned the spotlight on the 28-year-old employee of the Congressional Budget Office. Until a week earlier, Skutnik had led a relatively unremarkable life. Then, on January 13, 1982, while others stood by helplessly watching, Skutnik leaped into the ice covered, frigid waters of the Potomac to rescue a victim of the Air Florida flight 90 crash after taking off from the Washington D.C. airport. Reagan called it the “spirit of American heroism at its finest.” While “Skutnik” might not be on the tip of your tongue, if you watched the scene in the Potomac unfold on national television, you would likely recognize the name when mentioned today.

The Los Angeles Times reported, Skutnik appeared on several television shows and was feted and honored by numerous organizations. Skutnik did not get to meet the President but was proud of the recognition.  Then, he returned to his job. 

So, as it was President’s Day this week, I took a trip back in time to identify who past Presidents had singled out and, with a focus on their military-related picks, and what the honor held for them. 

Reagan 1984: Stephen Trujillo, Sergeant, US Army who was a combat medic with the 2nd Ranger Battalion during the US invasion of Grenada and received a silver star for his actions to remove wounded soldiers from downed aircraft while exposing himself to enemy fire on multiple rescues. He later was part of the Army’s First Special Operations Group and still later worked as a Defense Department in Baghdad in 2003. He later wrote a book of his days in the service, A Tale of the Grenada Raiders. Today Trujillo is an essayist and political scientist and lives in Bangkok. He blogs under the name Esteban Trujillo de Gutierrez and uses a photo of himself in uniform standing proudly between Nancy and Ronald Reagan. His author biography claims he writes on military history, conspiracies, surveillance, esoterica, pandemic pedophilia and the American praetorian class.

Reagan 1985: Jean Nguyen a Vietnamese refugee who came to the US not knowing a word of English or anything of her new country and became a graduate of West Point. She would later become a captain in the US Army serving for five years, until 1989. Nguyen would earn two graduate degrees. Today she works as an enterprise architect in the Raleigh-Durham area.

I hope to share more about Stephen Trujillo and Jean Nguyen-Cole in the coming weeks. And, next time, more stories from other Presidential SOTU addresses.

American Presidency Project:
Time Magazine.
Washington Post.

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