Spencer Stone tells PEOPLE the most touching times came during his encounter with the young daughter of a San Bernardino shooting victim
Stone, who helped thwart a terrorist attack on a French train just last August, was one of only 23 people invited to sit with First Lady Michelle Obama in her box during the President’s final State of the Union Address.
Stone says the most touching times on Tuesday came during his encounter with the young daughter of the late Damian Meins, who died in the San Bernadino massacre.
“I had a heartbreaking moment when one of the daughters of man killed in San Bernadino said, ‘Thank you for what you did.’ I told her I was so sorry, said ‘God bless you,’ and gave her a hug,” Stone told PEOPLE during a phone interview on Wednesday morning. “Such a sweet girl.”
On August 21, Stone, 23, and his boyhood friends Alek Skarlatos and Anthony Sadler, subdued a gunman on board a Paris bound train during their summer vacation. After taking down the gunman and sustaining injuries, Stone turned his attention to Mark Moogalian, who was shot after he attempted to stop the gunman himself. Stone, an EMT with the Air Force, was credited with saving Moogalian’s life.
For people around the world. Stone, Sadler and Skarlatos personify how individuals have the power to thwart terrorists.
“What I will walk away with (from listening to the State of the Union Address) is how the president said we are still a strong country and I like how he made it clear that we aren’t dealing with a giant war, but with low grade thugs,” Stone says. “In the grand scheme, they can’t bring us down.”
Stone said he was struck by many things he saw sitting in the box with First Lady Michelle Obama, Vice President Joe Biden’s wife, Dr. Jill Biden and the others invited to sit with the First Lady.
“I couldn’t stop thinking about how I got to be a part of history, ” Stone says. “To be in the same room as presidents who have made these speeches and important decisions have been made is something I’ll never forget.”
And he was struck by the room’s reactions to the president’s speech.
“It was funny to see how divided the House was,” Stone says. “The joint chiefs of staff didn’t clap except once when mentioning our military, so they tried to keep their military bearing.”
Stone says he wasn’t given any specific instructions on how to act during the address, so he just winged it.
“His speech was awesome. I stood up and clapped when appropriate,” Stone says. “I clapped at any mention of the military or inspirational people. And when he was talking about making college more affordable, I’ll clap for that.”
But Stone declined to comment about his own presidential hopeful preference because he feels it is inappropriate to discuss that while maintaining the public non-partisan stand of the military.
This is the second time in six months that Stone has met with President Obama and speaking with his Commander-in-Chief has obviously been a thrill for him.
“I feel like we are buddies now,” jokes Stone. “But it is a little weird.”
And the significance of sitting in the box with Michelle Obama during the speech was not lost on Stone.
“The point of every guest in the box was to represent the future of America,” Stone says. “To be part of history and watch the final address and be recognized as the future of America is an amazing feeling.”
Did he get any advice from fellow train heroes Skarlatos and Sadler about what to do at the State of the Union Address?
“No, not really. Although they did ask me why they weren’t invited,” says Stone with a laugh. “I think they could only invite one person, so only one of the first female Army Rangers was there. It was just an honor for me to represent Alek and Anthony.”
Stone was allowed to have one person accompany him on the trip and he chose his uncle Tim Eskel of San Jose, California. Stone’s close-knit family, which includes mom Joyce Eskel of Carmichael, California, brother Everett, a California Highway Patrol officer and sister Kelly, decided Stone’s uncle Tim should be his plus-one.
“He hasn’t been able to participate in a lot and he’s been like a second dad and a big part of the children’s lives,” Joyce Eskel tells PEOPLE. “He prays for our leaders and the nation every day. He’s retired and hasn’t traveled much, so this was a great thrill for him.”
Stone says no VIPs asked for photos with him, probably because they were escorted by the Secret Service by motorcade to their own isolated area. After the address, they were allowed one-on-one time with the president.
Stone says he was most impressed by Army Ranger Lisa Jaster, who became the first female Army Reserve officer to graduate from the elite Ranger School.
“She showed she can stand up to the same caliber as previous rangers,” Stone says. “She’s very laid back and nice and I liked that.”
Stone says Michelle Obama voiced concerns about him after his near death experience in a Sacramento stabbing in October.
“Mrs. Obama told me, ‘Stop being a hero. You are done,’ ” Stone says. “I’ve promised everyone I’ll stay away from sharp objects in the future.”
As for his future plans, Stone says he, Sadler and Skarlatos are currently writing a book that will be coming out this year. He will officially leave the Air Force in November 2016 and plans on attending college, perhaps to study international relations. But all that might change.
“I live my life day by day,” Stone says. “Obviously I’ll still be involved in organizations like the USO and Wounded Warriors, which will always be a big part of my life. But I like to motivate people and I like working with children. I could go anywhere and do anything.”