The Heroes of Walter Reed

Posted 11.05.2010

Janey Yesterday, on a rainy afternoon in Washington, DC, I had the privilege of doing something that I wish every American had the opportunity to experience.  Through her company, Hooks Book Events, my friend Perry Hooks arranged to give 200 copies of a new book about women combat veterans called When Janey Comes Marching Home to wounded warriors and their families going through rehabilitation at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.  Along with the book’s author Laura Browder and its photographer Sascha Pfalaeging, Perry and I and a few other folks who were helping out had the opportunity to meet and talk with some of the soldiers and the people who are supporting them.

They’re heroes and to explain why they are I want to share a few of their stories with you. 

The first soldier I met was a good looking young guy named Jeremiah. He’s a National Guardsman from South Carolina and was two months into his first tour in Afghanistan when an IED blew up the vehicle he was riding in.  Jeremiah’s in a wheelchair and will be for several more months while the damage to his feet is repaired.  He joined the Guard to earn money for college and isn’t sure yet when he’ll enroll but intends to.  He had ambitions of going Airborne with the Army but figures his injuries have ruled that out.  He also suspects that he won’t be carrying 80 pounds of equipment on patrol in the Afghan mountains again.  He was deployed to a forward operating base near Kandahar and told me that while he was there you were pretty much guaranteed of being shot at with AK-47’s or rocket propelled grenades whenever you left the base. Compared to most of the soldiers I saw in wheelchairs at Walter Reed yesterday, Jason is fortunate because he still has ten fingers and ten toes while most of his comrades in chairs have lost one or both legs to IED’s.

Next was Stephanie, a bright and bubbly solider from Delaware assigned to a Civil Affairs unit.  She came to Walter Reed in April after the vehicle she was riding in went out of control and ran head-on into a cement wall at 45 miles an hour.  Stephanie was thrown into the windshield and suffered severe lacerations to her head, some traumatic brain injury and other injuries that left her in a wheelchair until a few weeks ago.  When I met her, she walked into the room on crutches and stood and talked with me for 20 minutes about her career with the Army and her plans for the future. (Honestly, I was worried that I was keeping her standing for too long but she really wanted to talk.)  Afghanistan was her third tour to the Middle East following ones in Iraq and Kuwait.  She enjoys the work of Civil Affairs and the opportunities to work with soldiers from other NATO countries.  She’s particularly fond of the French since they’re the ones that provided the EMT’s that saved her life after the vehicle crash.  She wants to stay with the Army after Walter Reed but is hoping for assignments in Europe instead of the Middle East.

Accompanying Stephanie yesterday was her youthful looking mom, Paulette.  She’s at Walter Reed serving in the role of her daughter’s NMA – non medical assistant.  We were meeting at the Mologne House Hotel on the Walter Reed Campus.  It has about three hundred two-bed guest rooms of about 280 square feet each.  Many of the soldiers who are at Walter Reed for long term care and rehabilitation stay there.  Each of them has an NMA which could be a mom, a dad, a spouse, a brother or sister.   While Paulette used to work in a marketing job for a business in Delaware, her full time job now is to make sure Stephanie gets to the three or four  therapy appointments that she has every day between 8:30 am and 4:30 pm.  Paulette and Stephanie have been at Walter Reed since the accident last April and expect to leave when the rehabilitation program is completed next April or May.

Their stay at the Mologne House will likely be a little shorter than the average.  I spent some time talking  with Peter Anderson, the manager of the hotel.  He told me that the average stay for his guests is somewhere between 16 and 18 months.  Peter has been the manager at Mologne  since it opened 14 years ago.  When he told me how long he had been working there, I noted that he had been in a position to see a lot of history come through the doors.  He agreed and listed the different military engagements – large and small – that have led to wounded warriors coming to Walter Reed.  I asked Peter what his job was like supposing that it must be both rewarding and emotionally difficult.  He agreed but said it was mainly rewarding because of the opportunity to connect with his guests and see the progress they make between the time they arrive and when they leave.  It was clear from watching him walk the lobby and work the dining room that Peter knows every solider and story at Mologne.

One of the soldiers I saw him embrace with a man hug was a nice fellow named Rafael.  My friend Perry had met Rafael on a previous visit to Mologne when he was in a wheelchair.  Yesterday, he was on his feet.   He was a little unsteady and swaying a bit from side to side but he was on his feet and proud of it.  He told us that he had just completed his 29th surgery since coming to Walter Reed and knows a friend who’s had 50 surgeries in his time there.  Rafael was a golfer before being wounded in Iraq and has recently taken up the game again with the support of volunteers and a special wheelchair that allows the wounded warriors to swing the club.  Lately, he’s been playing without the chair and told us with a laugh that the last time he fell down was when he was out on the course and lost his balance while trying to crush a drive.  He wanted to make sure we knew that he’s hitting the ball about 150 yards these days.

People like Jeremiah, Stephanie and Rafael are heroes not just because they chose to serve their country but because, after being wounded doing so, they are approaching their life after with quiet courage, grit and grace.  People like Paulette and all the moms and dads, spouses and siblings who are serving as NMA’s are heroes too.  With their sacrificial love and care for their soldiers, they, too, are serving their country.  For bringing compassion and connection to his work, Peter is a hero as well.  His passion for his job and his guests makes an incredibly difficult time in their lives more bearable.

With all of the chatter and noise in our public discourse today, it’s too easy to view the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as just more headlines in our busy lives.  With less than 2% of Americans serving in our armed forces, it’s too easy for the 98% of us who don’t to forget what they’re doing for us.  I’m grateful for the opportunity I had yesterday to be reminded of that and understand it in a different way.  I’m grateful for their service and that of their families.  I’m sure you are too.  There are lots of ways you can show that gratitude.  To get you started, here’s a link to the web site for the Wounded Warrior Project.   If you have other suggestions for how we can support our troops and their families, please share them in the comments.