Alan Gross, the United States contractor released from prison in Cuba last month, will be among 22 guests of First Lady Michelle Obama as President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address, the White House said Monday.
Others invited to watch the annual presidential speech to Congress from the First Lady’s box Tuesday night include an astronaut, a 13-year-old boy from the South Side of Chicago and an army veteran who lost both legs in Afghanistan.
The White House traditionally invites special guests the president can single out for mention during his speech, putting faces to his policies.
Highlighting Obama’s surprise agreement to begin normalizing US relations with Cuba after 50 years as adversaries will be Gross and his wife Judy.
Gross, who was freed December 17 as part of the deal, spent five years in Cuban jails for distributing laptops and communications equipment to the island’s small Jewish community as a subcontractor for the US Agency for International Development.
“For five years, from thousands of miles away, Judy fought every day for Alan’s release and never gave up hope,” the White House said.
Others on the list are ordinary Americans who exemplify aspects of the administration’s programs – a community college student, an auto worker, a woman who trained to be a construction worker, a small business owner, and a college student brought to the United States as a child by her undocumented parents.
Many first came to the attention of the White House because of letters written to Obama, but 13-year-old Malik Bryant of Chicago was noticed due to a letter to Santa he sent. “All I ask for is for safety I just wanna be safe,” he wrote. A non-profit forwarded the letter to the White House.
Jason Gibson met Obama while recovering from war wounds at the Walter Reed military hospital in Washington – an ordeal that involved 21 surgeries.
“Despite losing both legs and being unable to use prosthetics, he took up surfing and skiing, completed multiple marathons on a hand cycle, and even obtained his pilot’s license,” the White House said.
Also on the guest list is astronaut Scott Kelly, who will launch in March to the International Space Station, on a mission to become the first American to spend a year living and working on the orbiting platform.