A receptionist opened the door to the Oval Office and motioned for Brick to enter. This wasn’t Brick’s first visit to the most famous workspace in the country, but he had never had a one-on-one meeting with any of the three presidents he had served. In the Nixon White House, Brick was a low-level staffer, and with all the Watergate issues surrounding the administration, Nixon didn’t even know who he was. Brick became a regular security briefer when President Ford took over, and Ford seemed to remember Brick each time he would see him—although he did refer to Brick as Gene at one briefing. Reagan, on the other hand, was a very down-to-earth guy and always seemed interested in Brick’s opinions and in the position papers Autry had written. Still, it was only the president’s closest advisors who would have personal conversations with Reagan, so Brick was curious to know what the president wanted to discuss with him.
He stepped into the Oval Office and could see the president seated at his desk, writing on a piece of paper. He heard the door close behind him and then realized that the receptionist had stepped out of the room. He was now alone with Rawhide, the Secret Service code name for Reagan. He thought about clearing his throat to let the president know he was standing there but decided to remain still. After several long and awkward moments, President Reagan looked up and smiled when he saw Brick. “Ah, Colonel Autry, come in, come in.” The commander in chief got up from his desk and strode over to Brick. They shook hands, and Reagan invited Brick to sit in one of the small sofa chairs situated in the middle of the office. Although Reagan was seventy-four years old, he moved with vigor and had a good strong handshake. Since he was over six feet tall, he was a couple inches taller than Brick, but he wasn’t an imposing figure. He came across as a friendly and amiable guy.
After a few words of small talk, the president began to address the issue at hand, “Elliot tells me that the kidnappers in Beirut are demanding an emissary from my staff to pick up Roger Winfield and two other hostages. For some reason, you are the person they want to carry out this task. I’m well aware of how unreliable the representatives from Hezbollah are, and the type of treachery and violence they are prepared to use against our people. I’m also aware that you were a prisoner of war in Vietnam and have already paid a huge personal price for the dedication you have shown to our country. If this little game with Hezbollah is a trick, you may end up a hostage yourself in Lebanon. If that happens—well—that puts you into a tough situation. Hezbollah doesn’t hesitate to kill a hostage who is more trouble than he or she is worth.” The president paused as if to emphasize the severity of his last statement. “Brick, if you didn’t want to take on this mission, I certainly wouldn’t hold it against you. There’s a big-time risk in this venture, and I don’t feel good about asking a guy who has put his life on the line so many times in the past to hang it out there one more time based on assurances from a terrorist group like Hezbollah. You can take a pass on this if you wish.”
Brick’s smiled and took a second to think about his response. “Mr. President, I’m very moved by your concern for my welfare, but I’ve been risking my tail for America for a long time. If I wasn’t willing to take on a job like this one, I could resign from the air force and do something else. I could fly for an airline or become a businessman or just move to South Carolina and play golf for the rest of my life. But right now, right here, this is what I have to do for my country and for a lot of Vietnam veterans who are counting on me to do the right thing.”
Reagan gave Brick the famous head nod he used so many times in press conferences and reached out once more to shake his hand. “Godspeed, Brick Autry. When you get back, we can talk more about your role on the National Security Council staff. I need a guy like you. Someone who isn’t a politician or working in the White House to beef up his résumé. I need straight advice sometimes from a guy who has survived the brutality of war. No one hates war more than the soldier who has been there. Experienced soldiers look for solutions down every avenue before advocating man’s greatest inhumanity to his fellow man. Come back in one piece, Brick. We have important things to do over the next few years.”
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