It was New Year's Day 1993 in Somalia, and the 41st president of the United States was exhausted in the equatorial heat settling over a former Soviet air base that the U.S. Marines had recently occupied.
George H.W. Bush was 68 years old and a lame-duck president weeks from leaving office. One of his last decisions as president was sending troops to Somalia for famine-relief security. Now he wanted to thank them, and had flown in by Black Hawk helicopter from a Navy amphibious assault ship off the African shore.
It must have been a tiring trip from Washington because Bush looked drawn and weary. He had a motion-sickness patch behind one ear. Still, he stood for almost two hours in the sun posing with any Marine or soldier who wanted a photo. I was a reporter embedded with the troops, impressed to see some 200 take their turn one by one — a crowd of shaved heads and grinning faces with Bush at the core.
"It was like seeing a rock star," one 22-year-old corporal told me.
Troops serving in combat speak of a shared, nagging sense that, apart from family and friends, most Americans back home seem oblivious or have forgotten that U.S. military members are still risking their lives overseas.
But this sentiment melts away for the moment when the commander in chief comes calling. This is why President Trump needs to go see the troops, something he has yet to do after nearly a year in office.
President George W. Bush met with ground troops in Baghdad within 10 months of initiating that war in 2003. He would make four trips to Iraq and two to Afghanistan. When I covered those conflicts, an Air Force crew flying casualties in Afghanistan told me about welcoming Bush aboard their plane full of the wounded. They would never forget how the 43rd president stretched out on the aircraft's metal floor so he could talk face-to-face with a wounded servicemember on a bottom bunk.
President Obama met with troops in Iraq as a senator in 2008 and returned as president within three months of taking office in 2009. He would visit servicemembers in Afghanistan four times during his presidency. During a surprise trip in 2014, after addressing a crowd of uniformed personnel, Obama made a point of shaking hands with each of them.
Most of the time, these trips produce little political payoff. News coverage is scant. Most Americans back home are asleep during the visit. And it's not a time or place for major policy speeches or rallying oratory. It's also a long way to travel with living conditions far less accommodating than the White House or a luxury Florida resort like Trump's Mar-a-Lago.
And the visits are not without risk. After Defense Secretary James Mattis flew into Afghanistan last September, the Kabul airport came under an intense rocket attack by militants. Civilians nearby were wounded or killed.
Trump has fostered an image as an advocate for troops and veterans, though not without some controversy. When he criticized NFL players for kneeling during the national anthem, he characterized the gesture as disparaging those "fighting for our country," even though players said their actions were about systemic racism and law enforcement behavior.
As a candidate, millions of dollars he raised in a veterans fundraiser were paid out to charities months later only after questions about the money were raised by The Washington Post.
And last fall, Trump (falsely) suggested that unlike previous presidents, he makes a practice of calling the families of troops killed in combat.
A trip into a war zone is hard to characterize as anything other than a gesture of genuine concern. Today, there are more than 15,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan and at least 6,000 in Iraq and Syria carrying out Trump's war policies.
"We can't comment at this time when the president might travel there," White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders responded to my query about whether Trump intends to visit any of them. She noted that Trump asked Vice President Pence to go see troops in Afghanistan late last month. And Trump himself addressed deployed servicemembers over Thanksgiving by video message from Mar-a-Lago.
That's nice. But it's not the same as going there.