It’s been two months since they were guests at the White House, but Richard and Cindy Long and their grandson, Donaciano “Donnie” Archuleta, will never forget meeting President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump.
The family traveled to the nation’s capital for a special gathering of Gold Star Families at the White House in late May. The Longs and Archuleta were invited in honor of their daughter and mother, the late Air Force Capt. Tamara Long-Archuleta, who died during a helicopter rescue mission in Afghanistan in 2003.
Meeting the president and the first lady was an honor for the local family, who said the experience is something they’ll always cherish.
“It was really fantastic,” said Richard. “I’m not an excitable boy, but when you’re standing there in the White House, walking around in those rooms, you get kind of excited. It’s an amazing experience.”
After going through four different security checkpoints, the family walked up some stairs to find a harpist playing in the corner of the room and lots of young men and women in full-dress uniform. They walked up another flight of stairs to find the Marine Chamber Orchestra playing.
“There were no barriers, there was nothing roped off,” Cindy said. “We were able to walk into all the rooms, sit in all the furniture and pull books off the shelves. The whole place was open — it was like our house.”
Donnie, who was 3 years old when his mother died, said the experience of going to the White House was great.
“It kind of overwhelms you when you’re in the there for a little bit,” Donnie said. “There were portraits of most of the presidents everywhere. There was one of the rooms where there were every president’s favorite dining set.”
Richard particularly enjoyed the hors d’oeuvres and desserts, saying it was fancy and tasty.
Cindy, on the other hand, said she didn’t get to eat much because David Norquist, the under secretary of defense, had read their daughter’s biography and was very much interested in talking with her.
“He used to train in the martial arts, and when he read the bio, he was very impressed,” she said. “It was very awkward to eat and try and carry on a conversation.”
The Longs, who own Belen Goju Ryu Karate in Belen, said they stood in line for a while before they were escorted into a room where President Trump, the first lady and the official White House photographer were.
“As each family comes into the room, they announced, ‘The family of …,’ and then introduced us and our relationship to (Tammy) — father, mother and son,” Richard said. “You walk up to the president and Mrs. Trump, shake their hand and talk a little.”
“We were the only ones in the room at that point with the president and the first lady other than the photographer,” Cindy remembers.
“They were personable and warm, and I thanked him right away for meeting with us,” Richard said. “He said, ‘Oh no, thank you. It’s my honor.’ He was very genuine.”
“I was the first to shake his hand,” Cindy said. “I thanked him for bringing honor back to the country and not making excuses.”
The Longs and Archuleta were able to visit with the Trumps and talk about New Mexico.
“Melania was just very open and gracious and engaging,” Cindy said. “She would ask questions, and she was very human.”
“I doubt I’m ever going to meet another president or first lady,” Donnie said. “I wasn’t really nervous. My first thought was Trump was taller than I thought he was. When grandma was telling him how much she liked what he’s been doing, you could just see his face light up. He was very appreciative; I guess he doesn’t get that many people complementing him.”
After visiting for about 10 minutes and taking photos, the Longs and their grandson walked out of the room. They never felt they were being rushed or as if they were “just going through the motions.”
Before the ceremony started, they noticed when Vice President Mike Pence walked in the room. Everyone was seated and they had a candle for all those who had fallen being represented at the event. After several speakers, a pianist and singers performed.
“They called each name and the families stood up,” Richard said. “Every time when the people were standing up around the room, you could see the president looking to see who it was and who they represented. I was so impressed.”
The Longs were also able to visit with Heather Wilson at the event, who was in her final days as secretary of the Air Force. Wilson, Richard said, had visited with them when Tammy died in 2003.
The family stayed in Washington, D.C., an extra day and was able to visit several monuments, including the Women’s Veterans Memorial, where they found Tammy’s picture and information.
“We walked the National Mall from the Lincoln Memorial and walked all the way to the Vietnam Wall and World War II, and then we went to the National Air and Space Museum.”
The Longs wanted to show how much they appreciated the president, so they took a copy of the News-Bulletin in which their first story was published, T-shirts from last year’s Capt. Tamara Long-Archuleta karate tournament, the tournament program and the list of names of scholarship recipients.
Unfortunately, the package had to be left at the last security checkpoint, and the Longs didn’t know if the president would actually get it. But just a couple of weeks ago, they received a letter from Trump, thanking them for the gifts and for attending the event.
At the end, Richard described the president as being “personable and engaging. He’s just a normal person; he’s just a guy. He was appreciative of why we were there and he understood it, and was respectful of our sacrifice.”
Clara Garcia is the editor and publisher of the Valencia County News-Bulletin.
She is a native of the city of Belen, beginning her journalism career at the News-Bulletin in 1998 as the crime and courts reporter. During her time at the paper, Clara has won numerous awards for her writing, photography and typography and design both from the National Newspaper Association and the New Mexico Press Association.