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Retired sergeant recalls working as White House driver

HARLINGEN, Texas — Ross Giacomo has led a storied life, rising in his career with the U.S. Army to become a driver for the White House staffs of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

During his tour, he was a driver for Jim Brady, the Reagan press secretary, who was shot in the assassination attempt on Reagan in 1981.

While working under Reagan and Bush, he flew on Air Force One numerous times and developed a good rapport with the two presidents. He shook hands with President Bill Clinton while accompanying Brady in one of many visits to the White House. He spent time at the Reagan ranch.

Giacomo, now 64, and his wife Sarah are Winter Texans from La Monte, Mo., and are finishing their second season at VIP La Feria RV Park.

His service at the White House began when he received a phone call in 1981 while stationed at Fort Hood.

Staff Sgt. Giacomo was being assigned to the White House Transportation Agency, which includes a corps of master drivers. The drivers are all U.S. Army sergeants. Their job is to provide motor vehicle transportation for the White House staff, official visitors of the First Family and other authorized personnel.

“I think what happened, it was like winning the lottery, is what it amounted to,” Giacomo said.

“I was eligible for transfer. I had been back in the states so long. You didn’t spend too many years stateside before they would ship you somewhere else. So I was eligible for transfer at the same time the White House needed a driver, and so I was at the top of the list for transfer.”

His assignment began in January 1982 during the Reagan Administration.

“I went through eight weeks of training and then I could start driving on my own,” he said. “I drove for his staff and made a number of trips on Air Force One out to California.”

The most enjoyable part of his duty with the two presidents were the trips on Air Force One.

“The Air Force One that I flew in most was the same one that brought Kennedy from Dallas to Washington, D.C., when he got shot,” Giacomo said. “On the floor of that aircraft, just as you go inside the door, there’s an X on the floor, and that’s where Johnson was standing when he took the oath of office.”

During the Reagan years, he often rode Air Force One to California. He recalled two destinations. One was Reagan’s ranch near Santa Barbara. The other was the 19-acre ranch of Randolph Hearst, the heir to a billion-dollar newspaper empire, in Palm Springs.

“Reagan would go there and spend three or four days as his guest and so we got to go along and we would stay in Gene Autrey’s hotel,” he recalled.

Giacomo continued his job as chauffer for the presidential staff when President George H.W. Bush took office.

“President Bush and President Reagan, I talked to a number of times on Air Force One,” he said. “I wouldn’t say I was on their A-list, but President Reagan knew me by first name. President Bush usually just called me sergeant in respect to my position.”

He had a very good impression of the two presidents.

“I loved them both,” he said. “They were, besides being high up and such in politics, they were down to earth people. Reagan invited me to have dinner with him at his ranch. I had helped film a president’s council on physical fitness. Because of that he invited me to have dinner that evening, myself and like 50 other people, at the ranch in Santa Barbara.”

When Reagan left office, he sent Giacomo a letter thanking him for his duty and making his presidency easier.

“When I left and retired from the military in 1992, I got a personal letter from President Bush thanking me for my years of service,” Giacomo said.

Although Giacomo was now retired from the military after 25 years of service — he was by now a sergeant first class on the waiting list to become a master sergeant — his life at the White House wasn’t over.

When Giacomo first began his duty at the White House in January 1982, the assassination attempt on Reagan had only occurred nine months earlier. The shooting also seriously injured Brady and left him partially paralyzed. In spite of the brain injury, he remained press secretary and was therefore authorized for White House transportation.

“His voice was strong but it was blurry,” Giacomo said. “He was slurring his speech. He was going through daily physical therapy, occupational therapy, and voice therapy and all. I drove him a lot during that 10 years.”

By the time Giacomo was ready to retire, he had become good friends with Brady and his wife Sarah. He mentioned his plans to retire to Sarah Brady and she offered him a job working with her husband. He became Brady’s full-time personal assistant and driver.

“I took him to Europe,” he said. “We traveled all over the East Coast. He was instrumental in the Brady Bill and handgun control.”

The Brady Bill led them back to the White House where he met President Clinton.

“I had taken Jim Brady to the Oval Office to meet with President Clinton in signing the Brady Bill,” he said. “I was pushing Jim Brady in and stopped long enough for the President and Jim Brady to shake hands. And then as I started to turn Jim Brady away, President Clinton stuck his hand out to me and I introduced myself and the photographer took the picture.”

Clinton signed the Brady Bill into law on Nov. 30, 1993. Known commonly now as the Brady Law, its official name is the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act. It requires federal background checks on firearm purchasers.

Giacomo remembers an especially poignant story about sitting with Brady in a park in Alexandria, Va. It was the late 1980s or early 1990s. Brady’s left arm was paralyzed and he had only about 10 percent use of his left leg.

“We were sitting there having lunch, and this gentleman comes riding by on a bicycle, spins around, comes back up to Jim Brady, and he says, ‘Do you remember me?’” Giacomo said. “And Jim Brady looked up at him, now this has been almost 10 years since he’d been shot, and he says, ‘Yes, you’re the emergency room nurse when I got taken to the hospital.’ That’s how sharp Jim Brady’s mind was.”

Giacomo and Brady developed a strong bond during these years.

“Him and I used to harass each other so much, friendly harassment, that we became good friends and to this day we’re still good friends,” he said.

He and his wife plan to leave the Valley in March and spend about three weeks traveling to Virginia. They have two sons who live near Washington, D.C, and a daughter in Williamsburg. They’ll spend the summer there and plan to visit the Bradys in Arlington.

“Whenever we tell ‘em we’re headed back to Virginia they almost insist that we come see them,” he said. “So it’s been a long friendship.”

twhitehead@valleystar.com
 

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