President Bush shares grief with Davis family

By Kathy Helms-Hughes
Special to Elizabethton Star

   Thousands of Republican supporters turned out Saturday for a GOP rally at Tri-Cities Regional Airport hoping to catch a glimpse of President George W. Bush. They were rewarded with a view of his businesslike nature and political side.
   But in a small conference room tucked away inside the airport, President Bush was free to be himself. And the family of Master Sgt. Jefferson Donald "Donnie" Davis of Watauga saw the side of a man they'll never forget, a man who took time out from his hectic schedule to honor their son.
   Davis, a Green Beret and member of the elite 5th Special Forces Group, died last Dec. 5 in Afghanistan as a result of "friendly fire."
   Debbie Sams, Donnie's sister, said she and her father, Lon Davis, saw a notice in Wednesday's newspaper that the president was going to be at the airport. "Daddy said, 'I'd like to be over there,' and I said, 'Well I would too,' " Sams recounted.
   On Thursday, Bud Whitehead, brother of Republican Committeewoman Sara Sellers, came into The Barn Shoppe -- the family owned business -- and advised Sams that his sister had tickets to the rally. She called Sellers, who set the family up with VIP tickets.
   "Well the next thing we knew, she had somehow gotten in touch with Van Hilleary's people and Van Hilleary's people got in touch with Fred Thompson's people and then Fred Thompson's people called mom and dad and said, 'The president wants to meet you.'
   "We were just going to stand to see the president, and by that evening, we were going to meet the president. We were very, very excited. It was the most awesome experience of my life," Sams said.
   Linda Davis, Donnie's mother, said the family had talked about going to see President Bush "because we figured this will probably be the last time we'll ever get a chance to do so. My mother said she had seen (President Herbert) Hoover when she was a little girl. She said, 'It's something that you'll never forget.' "
   Thursday evening the phone started ringing. Mrs. Davis was asked private information about each family member who would be in attendance. "We had to be checked out," she said.
   Security clearance was obtained and the family was advised to be at the airport no later than 7 a.m. Saturday. Upon arrival, they were escorted to the VIP seating area at Hangar One. "My daddy helped build that. I thought, 'I wish my daddy knew this.' He would have been so proud of that," Mrs. Davis said.
   "We were positioned so that we couldn't see anything but just the tip of the plane when it landed," she said. Her son, Danny, held up a camcorder to record the event. "Everybody behind us and beside of us was watching that little viewer," and shouting excitedly, "Oh, there he comes!" or "Where is he? Where is he?"
   When President Bush stepped to the platform to descend from the plane, "all of these cameras started flashing and just the roar of the crowd -- it was a very, very uplifting situation. There were no hecklers, no protesters. Everybody was very respectful," Mrs. Davis said.
   The Davis family had been told to remain seated and that someone would come get them after the rally. "We had no idea who was coming to get, or when they were coming to get. ... Honey, the first thing I knew, he had finished his speech and this lady had a hold of Lon's arm and said, 'I've got your arm. Come on.' Down he went. Then another guy was standing there and he got a hold of Lon and we just led off like in a little fast train."
   Danny, who was still videotaping, told his mother he looked around and saw that his sister was gone. "He just happened to see her head and out he went too. ... They whisked us down that hall so fast I didn't even know what took place. When we got into the room we were just standing there looking at each other like, 'What just transpired?" Mrs. Davis said. Wide-eyed, they wondered, "What are they going to do with us next?"
   Sams said she expected heavy security, but the reality was like a movie. "Secret Service Police with guns all over them and bulletproof vests, and they were checking everything. They came into that room and they were checking behind the doors and we're just standing there like, 'Oh my gosh!' There was a door that led outside and they were standing right there at that door to make sure nobody got in. It was just unreal.
   "My brother Danny said, 'I was nervous and everything, but when I saw him [President Bush] walking down that hallway to come into the room, my heart fluttered,' "
   In awe, the Davises stood back and let President Bush make the first move. Mrs. Davis said, "When he came down the hall, Lon said he had this funny look on his face like, 'Oh, boy, here goes.'
   "I think he just had to get into the room and feel us out. He and Lon were the ones that mostly talked. I had this terrible laryngitis problem and I was just praying that I got through it without having a terrible coughing spasm that would send me into tears," she said.
   Following introductions, President Bush "just put his arms around us and gathered us up to him and said, 'My heart just goes out to you,' Mrs. Davis said. "He said, 'Mom and Dad, you're strong. You'll be all right.'
   "He touched all of our hearts. For him to share his feelings with us and to actually shed a tear, that's what got me. He said, 'Well, nothing like a good cry to start the day.' He just got out his handkerchief and blew his nose and wiped his nose just like you would or I would.
   "This man is a different person when he gets to himself. He's all business when he's out there in front of the public ... I think he was maybe putting himself in the same position, of possibly losing one of his daughters.
   "You don't know what it did for me to see my president sharing our grief and sharing a tear with us. I saw the human side. I told Lon there's something else I saw in him: I felt he had very strong Christian thoughts and feelings. You can tell when people are Christian. You can really feel it and tell it and sense it.
   "Lon told the president, 'You know, Fred Thompson was Donnie's hero.' He just laughed and said, 'We're going to have to do something about that!'
   "He was just like the man across the street there talking to us," Mrs. Davis said.
   Meeting a man of such prominence can leave one speechless, according to Lon Davis, but "it's something special to meet the president of the United States of America. You just don't know what to talk about. You'd think that somebody like that would come in and shake your hand and say, 'I'm sorry. My schedule's pretty tight, I've got to go. It was good to meet you,' and go. But he didn't.
   "I just really appreciate his time, that he showed that he was in no hurry. He was just so down to earth. He was easy to talk to.
   "I told him that I didn't want him to quit with this terrorist thing, that I wanted him to proceed with it and to bring justice to the ones that caused all this," Mr. Davis said.
   Sams said that after President Bush spoke with her parents, "he came over to me and Danny and, you know, I really don't even remember what he said. You're afraid to say anything, that you'll say something stupid.
   "I know he said something about his father worrying about him being on TV and he told his dad, 'Well, Dad, you should know better than to watch TV.' "
   The president also overheard Sams and her brother discussing having a group photograph made. Sams said the president told them, "Why sure, we're going to have a picture of all of us together. That's what my White House photographer is here for. We'll make the picture and we'll send it to you."
   Sams was so pleased, in typical Southern fashion, she gingerly ran her hand up the back of his coat like she would an old friend, then suddenly panicked at her actions.
   "Danny was like, 'Why didn't you say something? I know he would have joked about it.' And he probably would have, because that's just how he was. But I panicked. I didn't know what to do, what to say, whether to move my hand -- so I just left it there. I thought that photographer would never stop taking pictures!"
   Sams said that if Donnie were alive, he would say, "Debbie, you're the only one that would do that!"
   The Davises took along a photograph of their son and members of the Green Beret's Texas 12 standing in a desert setting alongside Afghanistan Prime Minister Hamid Karzi.
   Mrs. Davis asked the president if he would please autograph it. "I pointed out which one was our son, which he probably already knew."
   Before signing, President Bush wrote: "May your spirit live on."
   "It was very touching," Mrs. Davis said.