The G20 summit in the Fall of 2011 was held in Cannes, France. President Obama and French President Sarkozy were scheduled to deliver a joint press-conference highlighting the NATO alliance and the recent success of the military operation in Libya.
I supported the Allied Joint Force Commander's mission, so I traveled to France with him. Our flight on the military jet was quick—only 50 minutes from the American naval base in Italy to Southern France. Once we arrived at the airport, I saw Air Force One towering on the tarmac. The sky was overcast with grey skies and light rain. We wasted no time jumping into our motorcade, and getting escorted by two French motorcycle cops weaving in and out of traffic with their sirens and flashing lights.
President Sarkozy arrived to the press conference first and the crowd cheered. He shook hands until everyone's attention was diverted to the arrival of The Beast—the codename for the presidential Cadillac. Secret Service agents swarmed the massive limousine, and one grabbed the handle of the heavily-armored door that displayed the presidential crest. President Obama exited with a grand smile, and the crowd roared.
The two presidents walked by an honor guard on their way to the podium, center stage. President Sarkozy gave a brief speech in French and then President Obama delivered a speech about the transatlantic partnership. He bragged about the success of Operation Odyssey Dawn. A few times in his remarks, President Obama spoke in French to the crowd's delight. It was a nice gesture, and no doubt one of the reasons many perceived Obama as a "world president."
After their prepared speeches, the two of them entered the City Hall building to give a televised interview for a French network. The US Delegation waited downstairs in a greeting room while the presidents answered questions from the journalist. I used that time to speak with the Secret Service agent who had been dispatched from Chicago to provide protection at the event.
When the presidents' interviews finished, President Obama was supposed to speak privately for 20 minutes with Admiral Stavridis and Admiral Locklear. However, that was changed at the last minute because President Obama wanted to greet the troops. The Secret Service agent heard through his earpiece that Renegade was coming downstairs, and he alerted me to POTUS's arrival.
President Obama walked in the room with purpose, and headed straight to the 15 or so enlisted Soldiers, Sailors, and Airmen. As he shook each hand, he asked: "What is your name?" After they answered, he would ask: "Where are you from?" The President looked geninunely happy to be among the military members. "I'm very proud of you and your service," he said. "Tell your families that the Commander-in-Chief told you that he is proud of you." His praise continued, and he emphasized how NATO exists because of the strong American leadership that serves it.
He shook Admiral Stavridis's hand, Admiral Locklear's, then Air Force General Jodis's hand, and continued down the row of senior military officers. When he got to me, I think at first he thought I was a member of his protection detail. I was wearing a suit and had been issued a lapel pin by the Secret Service. But when he didn't recognize me, he extended his hand.
I gripped it firmly. "Mr. President, it's an honor."
"What is your name?" The President asked.
I told him, and he asked, "Where are you from?"
I replied proudly, "Cajun Country. Do you know where that is?"
The President chuckled. "Oh yeah. Can you cook?"
"Yes," I quickly responded. No sooner had the words come out of my mouth, that I thought: "Damn, I just lied to the President of the United States. I don't know how to cook. I don't even enjoy cooking. But I didn't want to be the man who said 'no' to the President."
I reached into my pocket and retrieved a command coin. I presented it to the President. "Sir, I'm a special agent with NCIS at our Europe and Africa Field Office in Naples, Italy. I would like to give you our coin." He opened his palm, and I placed it in his hand. The facing side was brightly colored with green, white, and red colors and displayed Italy's outline. He studied the coin for a bit, and then looked at me. "Thank you for your service." He then turned his body to face the entire crowd and remarked that he was proud of everybody's service to our country.
His personal assistant tried to keep him on schedule and directed him to the exit. As they walked away, I heard the assistant tell President Obama that the Secret Service needed to collect the challenge coins for security purposes.
President Obama nodded in acknowledgment, and said, "We'll do it later." The President exited the side door, where The Beast was conveniently waiting to whisk him to Air Force One.