WASHINGTON – When his sister told him he needed to call the Air Force chief of staff’s protocol office immediately Saturday, one thing ran through Staff Sgt. Clinton Ward Smith Jr.’s mind.
“I thought, ‘Geez, what did I do,'” the Forestville resident said with a laugh Wednesday.
As it turned out, it was not what Smith did but what he was about to do — be a guest of first lady Laura Bush for Tuesday’s State of the Union address.
Smith, 28, a member of the 11th Security Forces Squadron, is a seven-year veteran of the Air Force. The Suitland High School graduate spent four months in Baghdad with the 447th Air Expeditionary Group, returning home in October.
Neither Smith, nor the White House nor officials at Bolling Air Force Base in Washington, where he is stationed, could say why the airman was chosen for the honor, except to note that each branch of the military had at least one representative at the speech.
Smith got calls from both the Secret Service and the White House protocol office Saturday, which ran background checks late into the night.
“They kept me nervous,” he said.
He cleared his background checks and, on Tuesday, arrived in uniform at the Pentagon promptly at 6 p.m. Smith was searched there for concealed objects, then taken to the White House, where he was searched three more times while walking through “areas we don’t talk about,” before arriving in the protocol office to meet the other military guests.
The seven had dinner with the president, who “thanked us for our service” before excusing himself to go review his speech, Smith said. They also met White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice.
Because Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Richard B. Myers “is an Air Force guy,” the Secret Service told Smith he might be called on to escort the first lady to her seat. But it turned out Mrs. Bush did not need an escort, as she was escorting Iraqi Governing Council President Adnan Pachachi, a late addition to the guest list.
After a motorcade to the Capitol, Smith walked in with the first lady and sat two rows behind her, over her right shoulder. Before the speech, he said, Mrs. Bush greeted all her guests.
“She said, ‘How are you doing, Sgt. Smith? I’m sorry you couldn’t escort me, but we’ll take pictures afterward,'” Smith recalled. “They seemed to know a lot about me, but I knew nothing about them.”
From his gallery seat, Smith said he was struck by the bustling members of Congress before the speech. “I have never witnessed anything like that in the Capitol before,” he said.
After the speech, the Bushes took pictures with all their guests. Smith was told he would be invited to a future White House dinner, and would get autographed copies of both the evening’s program and his pictures with the Bushes. Smith also got a presidential coin issued for the Air Force, but he said it is the picture he will treasure most.
“It’s special to have that,” he said.
Smith said he enjoyed the night, considering, “I didn’t know much about why I was going, and I didn’t expect much out of it.”
His mother didn’t know why he was going either. But, contacted before the speech, Lizzie Smith said she was still excited for her son.
“I’m honored and I’m proud of him,” she said. “He’s honoring members of our armed forces.”
-30- CNS 01-21-04