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Bear hug from Obama for disabled Army vet Theresa Hannigan from LI

President Barack Obama shakes hands with U.S. Army

President Barack Obama shakes hands with U.S. Army Sgt. Theresa Hannigan of Long Island, wearing a device which allows paraplegics to walk, during a tour a technology exposition at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. (March 21, 2013) Credit: Getty Images

"How would you like to meet your president?"

Retired Army Sgt. Theresa Hannigan, invited to Israel to meet the developers of a bionic device that allows her to walk, was surprised by the question Tuesday.

"You're joking, right?" the Patchogue woman, a paraplegic, told them. "What soldier would not want to meet their commander in chief?"

Not only did they meet, but President Barack Obama gave her a hug Thursday while touring a technology expo in Jerusalem -- part of a four-day visit to the Middle East.

Hannigan, 59, diagnosed in her 20s with a progressive autoimmune disease, said in an interview Friday that Obama asked her what the Israeli-designed ReWalk device, a computerized exoskeleton, means to her.

She instead asked if he hugged his wife and children.

"Yes," the president said.

"Now try to hug somebody in a wheelchair," she said.

On cue, Obama, whom she had earlier saluted, swooped in for a bear hug that was captured by TV news cameras.

Obama offered a personal reflection, according to the Associated Press. "Michelle's father had MS, so he used crutches until he was probably 45, 50, then got a wheelchair."

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was with Obama on the tour, replied, "This would have given him a different life," according to the AP.

In fall 2011, Hannigan enrolled in a clinical study using the device at the James J. Peters VA Medical Center in the Bronx. At the time, she had become reliant on a wheelchair.

A former medic who served in Vietnam, Hannigan said Friday that she told the president that the VA medical team members are her "unsung heroes."

She said she asked Obama for his support in getting FDA approval for ReWalk, made by Argo Medical Technologies, which can be used in rehabilitation centers but hasn't been approved for home use.

Hannigan said people in Israel -- and on Friday's flight home to New York City -- asked her if she was the woman hugged by the president.

"Yes, I am," she answered. "He's a good hugger."

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