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When I returned from Iraq earlier this year, I discovered my family had been doing volunteer work at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where many of our wounded troops go for treatment and rehabilitation. I was so moved that they had begun doing this and that they didn't tell anyone about it — didn't brag — they just went and did their part. A little-reported fact is that many Americans have been doing exactly that.
Every month, patients newly well enough to travel are loaded, along with their families, into buses that take them from Walter Reed to the Pentagon. They are treated like VIPs — given police escorts through the city and across the bridge to their disembarkation point. They are met by carefully chosen escorts from whichever office is sponsoring that month's visit, and brought up to one of the entrances where there is a band waiting for them along with several thousand Pentagon employees. The troops walk/hobble/wheel down several long corridors stacked two and three people deep — people who cheer and cry and say thank you. Last month was particularly poignant as all the wounded visitors were amputees. The guys took their time, shaking hundreds of hands, thanking those who turned out to support them. I saw one soldier with his arm blown off who cried down three corridors with his sister walking next to him, tears streaming down her face.
The West Point Pep Band turned out, complete with cheerleaders, which our wounded absolutely loved. After the pep band the troops did the Pentagon tour, visited the 9/11 memorial, and then went up to the Executive Dining Room. There all the guys and their families had lunch, and the VIPs showed up. Secretary Rumsfeld came, as did Mrs. Rumsfeld (who frequently goes to Walter Reed unannounced, with boxes of freshly baked cookies). Also in attendance were various undersecretaries who sat with the troops for over an hour, writing down names and phone numbers and giving business cards with cell- and home-phone numbers scrawled on the back, saying "Call me if you need anything."
This past weekend I got up early and went with some friends to Walter Reed to meet two soldiers we had promised to visit. One is named Rob — he is here for a cochlear implant to get his hearing back. He was wounded in Afghanistan early this year and is completely deaf. On September 11, 2001, Rob was a normal college student at Florida State University. He and several of his friends were so affected by the events of that day that they dropped out of school and joined the Army. Rob is now a Ranger and hopes to go back to active duty, assuming the surgery is successful. Right now we have to communicate with him by writing everything out on notepads. He has droopy puppy-dog eyes and a shy smile. He also has a huge tattoo on his right arm with the two towers and the date of his injury.
Adam is the other soldier we visited — he is 21 and was in Iraq as a member of a special-operations group. He was hit three times within an hour and has problems with excess spinal fluid and blood in his brain. He also can't feel his legs. His favorite restaurant in the area is Steamer's in Bethesda, Maryland. He recounted how he and some of his fellow wounded went over there recently (by taxi) and racked up a bill for almost $400, which someone paid. When they argued, the woman said: "I'm old, what am I going to spend my money on?" Whenever they go to Steamer's, the cook and several waiters carry the guys and their wheelchairs up and down a dozen stairs.
I spent several months at Bethesda Naval Hospital after I was medivaced from Vietnam. The visits were not as frequent then, but they were appreciated. I still remember a crushing hand shake from Marine Corps Commandant General Leonard Chapman.