Monday, November 14, 2011

Washington Social Diary

Brendan Marrocco, before the Easter Sunday explosion that changed his life.
by Carol Joynt

In the summer of 2009 I made a visit to Walter Reed Army Hospital to spend an afternoon with the wounded, many of them soldiers who had recently been airlifted from battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan. It would be an understatement to say it was a story I approached with apprehension, not knowing what to expect or how I would be received. Respect for the soldiers and their families was what mattered most.

The setting was a barbecue picnic. Men and women in wheel chairs and on crutches slowly gathered on a brick plaza and around a lawn. As I quietly ingratiated myself the conversations with the wounded and their loved ones became comfortable. In some instances they seemed to welcome my curiosity and the opportunity to tell their stories.

The people I met and photographed have stayed with me, but there's in particular: PFC Brendan Marrocco of Staten Island. His wounds were not even a year old, and they were overwhelming. He'd lost his arms and his legs in an explosion in Iraq, achieving the unwanted distinction of being the first soldier to lose all his limbs and survive. When I asked if I might take his picture, he gave a small but pleasant smile and nodded. His father Alex Marrocco, standing nearby, seemed skeptical. It was all still so new and, as his father indicated, potentially close to hopeless.
Marrocco at a car show in Muskegon, MI. (photo by Ken Stevens, Muskegon Chronicle.)
The news here is that the recovery of Brendan Marrocco continues in a positive way. This Veterans Holiday weekend a friend sent me a story from The New York Times. The story was a year old, but still, it showed how much Brendan achieved in the year after we met. It also said he faced "rare and risky" double arm transplant surgery.

Yesterday I spoke with his father, who said, "He's doing well. He's one of these kids. He's very resilient."

Brendan was featured in a piece on the CBS News broadcast "Sunday Morning." There was this exchange with correspondent David Martin:

Martin: Why didn't you bleed to death?

Marrocco: It's a copper dart, which is molten, so it's extremely hot. So as it went by, it completely cauterized my wounds, so I was barely bleeding from them.

Martin: What I'm trying to figure out, if you're the luckiest or unluckiest guy in the world.

Brendan Marrocco in June 2009 at Walter Reed Army Hospital.
Marrocco: A little bit of both, I guess.

Walter Reed was closed this year. The wounded were transferred to the Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland and the new Fort Belvoir Community Hospital in Virginia. Brendan Marrocco, however, moved into his own home on Staten Island, built for him and his unique needs by Homes for Heroes and The Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation. "The house in and off itself did a lot for him," his father said. "It gave him a certain level of independence, and he was very grateful for that."

According to, the house is state of the art. "Built over 10 months on the strength of more than $850,000 in donations, the two-story, three-bedroom, maintenance-free, high-tech residence is equipped with everything Marrocco needs -- wheelchair ramps, an elevator, sensors that operate lights, and electronic controls that raise and lower the sink, stove and kitchen shelves. There's also a three-car garage for the NASCAR enthusiast, who enjoys restoring stock cars."

After a bout this year with an infection, which prompted two surgeries, Brendan is back on the arm transplant list, complicated surgery his father said could happen at any time at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. For a while he was engaged to be married, but the engagement ended, according to his father.

"In the beginning things were bleak," Alex Marrocco said. "A lot of unknowns. There are still a lot of unknowns, but he's doing well and we're able to do a lot for him."

My 2009 photo of Brendan went viral. I'm glad of that. Hopefully it helped raise some of those funds for his new house and brought money to his Brendan Marocco Road to Recovery Trust.
Inside Brendan Marrocco's new Staten Island home. (courtesy Building Homes for Heroes)
Here's the original New York Social Diary story. We're hoping all the soldiers mentioned – and the many who have followed since – are recovering as well as Brendan.


For quite some time I hoped for an invitation to visit Walter Reed Army Medical Center and Mologne House. I desperately wanted to write about it but knew also that I would be intimidated. Who could capture it better than Ann Hull and Dana Priest in their 2007 Pulitzer-prizewinning and news making series of reports in The Washington Post? Chillingly and aptly they called the 280-room facility "Hotel Aftermath," a "twilight zone" for young military men and women recuperating from wounds earned while serving the country in the "war on terror." It was, they wrote, "afloat on a river of painkillers and anti-psychotic drugs."
Mologne House - where broken soldiers come to get their bodies, and their lives, put back together.
The main entrance to Mologne House.
The Post report cited outrageous instances of alleged neglect at Walter Reed in patient care, facilities, and management. In the scandal that followed several of the top brass quit or were fired. Congress demanded reforms and today the situation is said to be improved, but nonetheless Walter Reed Army Medical Center is scheduled to be closed in 2011 and folded into the Bethesda Naval Hospital.

This past weekend I was invited to a barbecue at Mologne House for the patients and their loved ones. The invitation came from Chris Thompson, co-founder of Citizens Helping Heroes, sponsor of the Obama Inaugural "Heroes Ball," and one of the many nonprofit groups who volunteer tirelessly to give assistance to wounded soldiers and their families. CHH are partners with the USO and TAPS, the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors.
There are expressions of "thank you" throughout the grounds and building of Mologne House.
The handsome home of the Walter Reed's Command Sergeant Major James E. Diggs.
Walter Reed Army Medical Center is a vast complex in an area of the city away from the tourist scene.
Arrive at the Georgia Avenue gates of Walter Reed and the first impression is the awesome beauty of the place – more than 100 acres of rolling green lawns with gardens and fountains and numerous handsome red brick and white trimmed buildings, many of them dating back to the early 20th century. It is every inch a buttoned up military facility but with a sweeping grace.

Mologne House, too, is an attractive building, modern and traditional – it could be any small town colonial-style hotel – until we entered the lobby and the courtyard. Most of the "guests" were men, some wore bandages around their arms, legs or heads, or walked on crutches or with canes, and all too many were in wheelchairs, missing arms or legs or arms and legs. And those were only the individuals who made it downstairs to the courtyard. There were others who chose not to leave their rooms or who were bed bound.
The Brown family barbecue, including baked beans, candied yams, pulled pork and turkey, cole slaw and banana pudding, was served to the wounded soldiers by volunteers. Sodas but no alcohol.
Bringers of the barbecue: Chris Brown, his father Thomas, and Terry Brown. They drove it up from Kingstree, SC. They won the southeastern US barbecue championship.
Plenty of watermelons for a hot and muggy June afternoon. Rising country music star Keni Thomas is popular with the wounded soldiers. He is a decorated combat veteran of the elite 75th Ranger Rgt special operations unit and continues to make repeated USO tours to the Mideast.
Their stories, their faces and bodies, are the visible, heartbreaking and living American legacy of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where most of the estimated 35,000 military wounded received their injuries from bombs, either grenades, IEDS, mines or courtesy of suicide bombers.

For better or worse, medical techniques can keep a torn apart and broken soldier alive on the battlefield long enough to survive the wounds. They survive the wounds – some not as visible as others – but return home to an uncertain future.
There to support and entertain the wounded, Redskins cheerleader "Sheridan," local TV reporter Angie Goff, event organizer Chris Thompson and Redskins cheerleader "Chastity."
During my afternoon at Mologne House I hung out with the soldiers, men and women, shared barbecue, soft drinks and cold watermelon with them, and talked to them about what happened to them, when and where. I had my camera, and asked for permission to take pictures, but stopped when I felt I had enough to tell the story.

For every picture of a young man without arms and legs, with black shrapnel bits still in his face, missing an eye, or with a bandaged head from a brain injury, staples across his ripped open chest - there are so many others just the same. And then there are the ones who have no apparent injury, no obvious physical wound, but who quietly told me, "PTSD" – Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. They didn't need to explain. I could see it in their eyes.
Sgt. Wasim Kahn of Queens was wounded in Baghdad. He's been at Walter Reed "a couple of years." Mike Hardy, of Bradford, AK, is recovering from a back injury he received in February.
A "thank you" banner with many signatures.
PFC Brendan Marrocco of Staten Island lost his arms and legs in Iraq on Easter Sunday 2008. He expects to be at Walter Reed a "long, long time." His father, Alex, helps to take care of him. Staff Sgt. Fred Vantroostenberghe is being treated for Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. He is from Detroit.
The eyes of the loved ones tell a gripping story, too. Parents who pulled up stakes and moved from wherever to be at Mologne House, to be their child's "non-medical attendant," a father helping to feed his armless son, a mother who has brought her legless son's daughter for a visit, the child sitting not on her father's lap – he doesn't have a lap anymore – but on the arm of his wheelchair. A wife who gave up her job to be at Mologne House and to do her new job, getting her mutilated husband through each day. I felt stupid when I got ready to snap a photo and automatically said, "smile." I'd catch myself and say, "You know, you don't have to smile." Most smiled anyway.

What I said again and again was "thank you. Thank you for your service and sacrifice." Cpl. David Murray of Vancouver, WA, told me that on May 16 in Afghanistan a grenade shattered the bones in his face, blew out his teeth and blinded his right eye, "But I would go back if I could, M'am. I would, but I'm permanently blind." I wanted to tell him I wish it were Rummy or Cheney or Bush who was at Mologne House, rather than him, that I wish they had to reside there permanently, but I didn't. I kept it to myself. I was a guest.
Staff Sgt. Juan Roldan of Paterson, NJ, lost his legs In Iraq on Dec. 29, 2006. On the arm of his wheelchair is daughter Bryana. Sgt. Roldan's mother, Carmen, helps to take care of him at Mologne House. He and his wife are divorcing. Cpl. David Murray of Vancouver, WA, was hit by a grenade round in Afghanistan May 16 that shattered the bones in his face, destroyed his right eye, and blew out his teeth, among other wounds. He has to be fed through a tube.
A volunteer hands out Inaugural commemorative coins to family members.
Iraq veteran Mike Hanselman, a Senior Airman in the Air Force, is from Jamestown, NY. He received his injuries skiing during a break from the war. He plans to resume active duty. Event sponsor Barclay Butler of Harris Corporation.
All of them remember the date they got wounded. They may not be able to tell me the exact town in Iraq or Afghanistan, but the date is indelible. PFC Brendan Marrocco of Staten Island told me he lost his arms and legs on Easter Sunday 2008. Specialist Jonathon Chavez of St. Paul's, NC, is remarkably upbeat for a young man ripped apart by a suicide bomb on May 21st in Baghdad. He is mostly stapled together.

I asked how many surgeries. "Oh, three or four." His wife, Tiffany Lynn Chavez, shook her head. "Four or five?" She shook it again. "More?" She nodded. "You were in a coma for nine days," she said. "You arrived here on life support." We agreed that if he lifted his shirt I would be shocked. "Several of my internal organs were removed." Staff Sgt, Juan Roldan of Paterson, NJ, the father with no lap for his daughter, said that since he was injured on Dec. 29, 2006, he has traveled a lot – to rehabilitation hospitals, including the Kessler Institute in New Jersey, another in Richmond, and back to Walter Reed.
Sgt. John Mastrangelo of Boston, wounded in Iraq; Master Sgt. Bob Sutherland of Berkley, MA, wounded in Afghanistan; Staff Sgt. Mike Downing of Middleboro, MA, (in the wheelchair) wounded in Afghanistan; Cpl. Daniel Rodriquez of Miami, wounded in Iraq; and Staff Sgt. Matt Wisegarver, wounded in Kuwait. Lt. Gen. David H. Huntoon, Jr., Director of the Army Staff.
Sgt. Downing talks with a friend. He expects to be at Walter Reed "another year."
Specialist Jonathon Chavez of St. Paul's, NC, with his wife Tiffany Lynn, was hit by a suicide bomber in Baghdad on May 21st. His wounds are extensive. "They had to remove several internal organs," he said. Specialist Chavez is very proud of his "dog tags" and his cross. He hopes to become a preacher.
Ann Pope, Lory Green, and Lucritia Gayle. E-7 Ann Pope has been recovering for three years from wounds she suffered in Korea. Army E-7 Lucritia Gayle of Queens is recovering from her second Iraq war wounds - to her back and foot. She's been at Walter Reed since 2005.
Carlos Colon of Puerto Rico was wounded in Afghanistan in October of last year. He has head wounds, including to his left eye. Here he is with his wife Luz, daughter Mileyshka and son Adrian. Sgt. Jason Letterman of Marshfield, MO, lost his legs, among other wounds, in May in Iraq and expects to be at Walter Reed "another year."
The party served more than 600 meals, according to Chris Thompson. In addition to the vast and delicious barbecue buffet from Brown's in Kingstree, SC, and music performances by country singers Keni Thomas and Gary Morris, CHH imported a couple of slightly dressed Redskins cheerleaders, who posed for photos and passed out large coins that commemorated the Obama Inauguration. Actors Owen Wilson, Reese Witherspoon, Paul Rudd and Jack Nicholson, in Washington making a film, did not respond to invitations to join the barbecue.

The soldiers didn't seem too terribly disappointed. After all, Jack Nicholson is no voluptuous cheerleader. Also, they strive to make peace with disappointment. Its no surprise, then, that morbid is the humor of choice around Mologne House. One of the soldiers, after posing with a cheerleader, said, "We would be an ideal couple. I have no legs and she's all legs."
Photographs by Carol Joynt.

Carol Joynt's memoir, Innocent Spouse, can be ordered from Amazon, HERE.