Less than nine months after the Tucson shooting, U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords again made her way to Washington, D.C. today, this time to celebrate husband Mark Kelly's 25 years of Navy service.
Vice President Joe Biden presided over the White House retirement ceremony. Kelly, a Navy captain and ex-astronaut, was awarded the Legion of Merit and the Distinguished Flying Cross for his service, which includes 39 combat missions and commanding the final flight of the space shuttle Endeavour.
Biden fumbled while pinning the Legion of Merit on Kelly. But Giffords, who sustained a gunshot wound to the head during the January 8 shooting and has since made few public appearances, deftly pinned the Distinguished Flying Cross on her husband.
"Gabby did it better than I did," Biden said as the attendees applauded.
Additional images available here.
The full pool media report, distributed by the vice president’s office and written by Stephanie Innes, a reporter at the Arizona Daily Star:
Pool was escorted into the Secretary of War Suite in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building at approximately 12:45 p.m.
Approximately 50 guests were seated in the room, which is decorated with the first U.S. flag to fly over Paris after the liberation at the end of World War II.
Guests included NASA Administrator Charles F. Bolden, Under Secretary of the Army Joseph William Westphal and Vice-Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Mark E. Ferguson.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi sat in the front row, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, U.S. Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Adam Smith, Erik Paulsen and Pete Olson as well as retired U.S. Rep. Ike Skelton.
The ceremony started late, so Bolden and Hoyer talked to the press pool while everyone waited.
At 1 p.m. Hoyer told reporters that he'd visited Giffords twice while she was in the hospital, and said the two are very close. He admires the way she is committed to getting a job done, "as opposed to throwing bricks at each other," he said.
When Giffords came to the Capitol to vote Aug. 1, Hoyer called it, "such an energizing and uplifting experience." He rode up and down the elevator with her that day.
"I told her 'I love you' and she responded 'I love you,'" Hoyer said.
At 1:15 p.m. Bolden said most people who U.S. Navy retirements are not presided over by the vice president of the United States.
"It's really special to have the vice president as the retiring official. Not very many people get to do that. And I think it's quite appropriate, given, you know that his wife is a sitting congresswoman. Mark's been an incredible leader for us in the astronaut office. We're sorry to see him go."
The ceremony began at 1:40 p.m. Biden later apologized for the late start, explaining he had been visiting with Kelly and his family in the West Wing.
Kelly came in with his family, including daughters Claudia and Claire Kelly, mother Patricia Kelly, Giffords and Giffords' mother Gloria Giffords. There was prolonged applause when they came in. Giffords entered the room with her chief of staff Pia Carusone.
Giffords wore glasses, black pants and running shoes. She also wore a brace on her right hand. She smiled as she came in. Her hair is still short but has grown out a little since her Aug. 1 vote on the debt ceiling. She sat in the front row, beside Carusone.
She stood up on her own for the pledge of allegiance and invocation, which was delivered by the Rev. Patrick Conroy, who is the House chaplain.
"Our nation has gained in the gift of self from this great citizen," Conroy said.
One of his daughters helped award Kelly the Legion of Merit, and Biden helped pin it on his jacket twice since it came loose the first time. The Legion of Merit was established by Congress in 1942 to recognize members of the armed services who demonstrator, "exceptionally meritorious conduct in performing outstanding services."
Giffords got up on her own to help present her husband with the Distinguished Flying Cross medal, which he earned for commanding the fourth and final flight on the space shuttle Endeavour. She pinned it on his jacket with her left hand. Biden commented that she did a better job with the pinning than he did.
Biden said he was honored to officially retire Kelly. He said Kelly and Giffords had requested he perform the ceremony. He said Kelly's daughters, who are 16 and 14, are both very bright and beautiful and joked that they should not be allowed to date until they are 30.
"Mark I hope to hell you have big guard dogs," Biden said.
He introduced Kelly's mother and Giffords' mother. Giffords waved and smiled at both women. As Biden introduced individual guests, Giffords looked at each one, smiled, waved and blew some air kisses.
"As vice president I get to work with an awful lot of people who devote their lives day to day to public service," Biden said.
"But it's not everyday you encounter examples of sheer, sheer courage, selflessness and dedication, like you see in this couple," he said of Giffords and Kelly.
He said Kelly has, "commendations galore," including top decorations given by the Pentagon and NASA. He noted that service is a Kelly family tradition. Both of Kelly's parents were police officers and Kelly's identical twinbrother, Scott is also an astronaut.
He spoke directly to Kelly, saying that after he graduated from the United States Merchant Marine Academy with highest honors, "you knew you wanted to fly," and he became a naval aviator.
He said that Kelly flew 39 combat missions on two deployments during Operation Desert Storm on the USS Midway with the U.S. Navy.
"Then came the opportunity to fly higher and you took it," Biden said. "The Navy lent you to the NASA astronaut corps in 1996."
Biden said Kelly did his job with "humility and humor." On one shuttle mission that included the task of repairing a faulty toilet at the International Space Station, Kelly, "floated through the airlock and said, 'I understand you are looking for a plumber.' And one hell of a plumber you were."
He commended Kelly for leading the Endeavour space shuttle in May and spoke directly to Giffords, saying she is an inspiration to thousands of people who suffer from traumatic brain injuries.
"I don't use the word loosely. You are an inspiration. You've been inspirational, people looking, saying 'I can make it, I can do this,'" Biden said.
He thanked Kelly for being devoted to his nation and his family.
"You have spoken to the whole country," he said.
Kelly was the final speaker. He said it has "truly meant a lot to us," to have so many people "in our corner" during the last eight months.
"Gabby and I want to thank you for your boundless friendship and optimism as our family has traveled this road over the last eight months," he said.
Kelly said there is no greater friend and no worse foe than the U.S. Navy.
"Thank you for giving me the opportunity to fly in space not just once but four times," he said. "NASA is the example of scientific research, development and success and must remain a permanent part of the fabric of this great country."
Kelly gave flowers to his daughters and to Giffords. He gave Giffords a bouquet of pink tulips.
"Gabby, you remind me everyday to deny the acceptance of failure," Kelly said. "I look forward to the next phase of our life together and watching all of your future achievements."
The pool was escorted out of the ceremony at 2:15 p.m.. A private reception with family was held with crackers and cheese, sandwiches and dessert.