Painting started as a post-presidency pastime. But with the release this week of George W. Bush‘s first art book, the 43rd president of the United States can call his meticulous and dogged study of portraiture a labor of love.
“It consumed me,” Bush tells PEOPLE of his just-published Portraits of Courage: A Commander in Chief’s Tribute to America’s Warriors, a collection of paintings honoring the military men and women who have served the country since the 9/11 terror attacks in 2001.
As the former president’s one-time chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Peter Pace, writes in the foreword, the volume is “a message of love—from a commander in chief to his troops.”
Speaking with PEOPLE in the spotless attic that serves as his Dallas home studio, TV room and office, Bush said he worked for a year—mostly at night—to paint more than 100 of the wounded vets he’s befriended since he left the White House in 2009. “I was thinking of their stories, their troubles, their joys,” he says of his subjects.
“These are men and women who I’ve gotten to know and really like. We just share a bond that is hard for people to understand,” Bush says in the interview for the issue of PEOPLE on newsstands Friday.
It’s a bond to which Bush has dedicated his “retirement.”
Between spoiling his granddaughters and indulging his inner Rembrandt, the former president, 70, works—and plays—with wounded warriors to make sure they get the health care and employment assistance they need for successful transition to civilian life. At the George W. Bush Presidential Center on the Southern Methodist University campus not far from his Dallas home, Bush’s policy team works on health care and employment programs for post-9/11 veterans, who, Bush says, too often struggle with the invisible wounds of war—like post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury—and the adjustment to civilian life.
The former president himself is hands-on in this work. Fortified by twin knee replacements, stents in his heart and back surgery, Bush invites wounded vets to join him for golf, mountain biking and pool parties at his home.
“A lot of these vets get stigmatized and they say, ‘I don’t want anybody to know I’m struggling.’ You can’t help a person who is not willing to be helped,” Bush tells PEOPLE. “My message is that it’s courageous to talk about your injuries—those you can see and those you can’t see.”
In the former president’s signature style, that message is often delivered with a chuckle—and a splash.
“For my 70th birthday, I wanted one gift—for veterans to come down [to the ranch] and ride and we had a really fun time,” he says.
“We threw our bikes on his front lawn, we walked around his house, took our shirts, shoes and socks off and jumped in the pool,” recalls former Army Special Forces Green Beret Michael Rodriguez. “Just like some kids rolling up to the friend’s house who had a pool.”
Adds Bush, “I feel like a teenager sometimes on those bikes. And then I feel like an old man when I finish riding!”
For Rodriguez, 43, the bond with Bush, more than fun and games, has been life-changing.
Through nine deployments over 21 years, Rodriguez sustained at least a dozen concussions that left him with double vision, severe headaches, light sensitivity and dizziness. He was medically retired in 2010 after being additionally diagnosed with post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury, and hid his symptoms behind dark sunglasses that he wore 24/7. “I was ashamed,” Rodriguez says.
That all changed when the soldier got to know his former commander in chief.
In 2014, Rodriguez invited his father Manuel, a Vietnam veteran, to the Bush ranch in Crawford, Texas, for the final day of Bush’s annual three-day, 100-km mountain-bike ride with wounded warriors that included Rodriguez.
His voice breaking with tears, Rodriguez recalls:
“Around the president, people are always jockeying to talk to him. My dad was not like that. My father is very reserved. He was standing in the back. It was a big crowd. I will never ever forget it: The president stopped his bike, got off, and he walked through people to say hi to my dad. He said, ‘That was bull crap, the way you guys were treated. I just wanted to welcome you home, man.’ My dad brags about that to this day. And for me to see that moment he had with President Bush welcoming him home from Vietnam, that emotional connection, I was like, ‘Man, I want that.’ I wasn’t even having a connection with my dad because I had the f—ing sunglasses on.
That afternoon, on the bus leaving the ranch, Rodriguez took his glasses of for the first time in four years—to say a few words to his father. “I had to put them back on, because the sun was killing me. But after that, I started the research that led to prosthetic lenses so I could get rid of the glasses.
“President Bush made me realize what I was missing and motivated me to get it back—that connection with my dad, my family. With people.”
In Portraits, Bush painted Rodriquez with the prosthetic lenses—one blue-green to correct double-vision; the other tinted dark brown to help with light sensitivity—that allowed Rodriguez to shelve the sunglass and his son Jacob, now 10, to memorably exclaim, “Daddy! I can see your eyes!”
RELATED VIDEO: Click HERE to watch People Features: George W. Bush, Portraits of Courage
Bush, who calls Rodriguez “Rod,” says: “He’s a warrior. On the other hand he’s got this sweet soul to him. He’s struggling but he’s getting a lot better and that’s why I wrote the book to talk about people like Rod.
“These veterans are a tremendous national asset. Thing about Rodriguez, this is a guy who has been all over the world, he understands team work, discipline, taking risk. If given the proper help, he’s going to continue to contribute to the country. Rod will be the first to tell you, in order to get help, you have to ask for it and that’s one of the real problems we have.”
—with TIERNEY MCAFEE
For much more of our interview with Laura and George W. Bush, including exclusive at-home photos, pick up the new issue of PEOPLE on newsstands Friday.