Monday, September 23, 2013

Washington Social Diary

The presentation of the colors at the annual Lone Sailor Awards dinner hosted by the Navy Memorial Foundation at the National Building Museum.
by Carol Joynt

It was possible this past week to have a clear picture of Washington in a post 9/11 world. The shootings at the Navy Yard, where a gunman murdered 12 people before police killed him, happened not even a week after the twelfth anniversary of the terrorist attacks (and, as it turned out, only days before a deadly attack and hostage situation in Kenya). What happened at the Navy facility in southwest DC was a brutal event and tragic for the victims and their loved ones and friends. But the city did not fall apart. There was no widespread panic. We kept our footing and, with tears and grief, we adapted.

The horrifying incident started during the morning rush hour. Word spread fast – because with text alerts and Twitter that’s what happens now with any catastrophic event, even before we know the magnitude. What we knew was that a gunman was on the loose, maybe more than one.

Mayor Vincent Gray.
Workers in a Navy Yard building may have been wounded. Lockdowns were enforced in the immediate area, including schools, homes and businesses. Police raced to the scene, joined by fire trucks, EMS, federal agents and media as well as helicopters overhead. It was a few hours before we learned the gravity of the situation, when DC Mayor Vincent Gray reported the number of deaths.

In other parts of town residents and workers went about their business. In downtown, where I have my office, if you weren’t plugged into mass media it was impossible to tell dramatic events were unfolding only 4 miles away. Traffic was routine. People walked calmly along the sidewalks. Before we knew there were deaths, a colleague and I went to lunch at Smith & Wollensky across the street. The manager and the servers shared acknowledgment with us that something scary was going on. But people were eating and talking.

Being in the news business, after we returned to work and learned events were escalating, we ramped up our reporting on the story. Later, when we knew the gunman was dead and likely working alone, a few of us met for a drink at The Palm (it seems to be becoming my place). The TV was on over the bar, tuned to the news, and everyone who sat there knew what was up, but we were not paralyzed or confused or dismayed. Maybe that’s because we assumed it was over and it was not terrorism. But it’s also because, whether it’s Tucson or Aurora or Newtown, or similar incidents that don’t make the news, we are, and sadly, accustomed to these events. According to FBI statistics, there have been 20 mass shootings so far this year in the U.S.

Going about our business is perhaps what we owe the victims. Because that's what was taken from them; they were going about their business, living their lives, until horror faced them in the shape of a gun in the hands of a man who’d come unhinged.

We react, we protect and defend, and we care – and care a lot – but we also adapt. Washington is not unique in this regard, but it happened most recently here, and this is my town and this is what I know.

Former Navy Lt. Bernadette Beckwell of Long Island with her (very good) service dog Tucker.
Here’s a story worth sharing.

Two days after the shootings, the Navy Memorial Foundation held their annual Lone Sailor Awards dinner. The 600 guests included people from what are known as the “sea services” – the Navy, the Marines and the Coast Guard. There were people in that room who have business in the Navy Yard every day. What’s notable is the dinner was not canceled but went on as planned and became a tribute to the victims.

I sat with a woman from Long Island. Retired Navy Lt. Bernadette Beckwell. We struck up a conversation because I noticed she had a service dog and I asked his name and whether I could pet him. She said his name was Tucker and yes, “he enjoys a nice pat on the head,” though he was adjusting to his first gala in a room as vast as the National Building Museum. He showed impressive calm.

I asked Beckwell why she had a service dog. She said she had permanent brain damage. She’d been in Afghanistan in 2007- 2008. It was there that she received a spinal cord injury. She said she had “balance issues,” that when standing her legs can suddenly go numb and she falls. She leans on Tucker to get back up. Her depth perception is gone, too. She told me these things matter-of-factly. She said she enlisted in the Navy with the goal of becoming an admiral, though now “I’m a broken computer that can’t get fixed.” The words punched me in the heart.
Tucker chills at his first gala in a building the mammoth size of Washington's National Building Museum.
Beckwell said she returned from war, coped with rehab, and with her husband divorcing her. “He couldn’t take it,” she said of the changes in her due to the mental disability. She lives with Tucker, who came into her life when he was a 2 ½ month old puppy. They trained together. She can’t work, but she’s learning golf as a form of therapy.

I brought up the Navy Yard shootings and asked her reaction. “Not again.” It took her back to Afghanistan, she said, and the random shooting death of a friend. “A guy decided to bring a gun into a building and start shooting Americans because he couldn’t get free gas.”

Importantly, Bernadette Beckwell is not a pity party. At least not in my time with her and with me asking so many private questions. She said she has some anger but she copes. She’s moving on with her life. To the best of her ability she’s adapted.
Ted Turner during the playing of the National Anthem.
Guests standing for the musical tribute from the United States Marine Drum & Bugle Corps.
The United States Marine Drum & Bugle Corps, resplendent in red and with gleaming instruments, are led by Maj. Brian Dix in a moving performance of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," two days after a mass shooting at the nearby Navy Yard.
Standing watch, active duty members of the "sea services" - Marines, Navy and Coast Guard.
A view from on high of the Lone Sailor Awards dinner at the National Building Museum.
Beckwell’s story was in my head as the dinner began and the United States Marine Drum and Bugle Corps marched out in their bright red uniforms, carrying their gleaming instruments. I thought of her, I thought of the Monday shootings.

The other guests in the room had their minds on Monday, too. The band, instinctively, provided a balm for the soul as Maj. Brian Dix, their leader, waved his baton and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” soared to the heights and corners of the room. It was overwhelming, and sad, and comforting. It was the right tune at the right time and at the right place.
Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas was one of the honorees at the Lone Sailor Awards dinner. Here she is among the guests the VIP reception.
Former Marine commander Gen. P.X. Kelley with Joan Alger.
GM CEO and chairman Dan Akerson.
Richard C. Vie, chairman of the board of the Navy Memorial Foundation with the organization's president, retired Vice Admiral John Totushek.
Ted Turner, CNN founder, America's Cup legend and former member of the Coast Guard reserves, with his frequent companion, Sally Ranney.
Sally Ranney and Ted Turner pucker up.
In his invocation, Rear Admiral Mark L. Tidd, the Navy’s chief of chaplains, spoke these words: “We are mindful that at this hour there are countless numbers who grieve the loss of loved ones and colleagues in the terrible events that took place not far from here just two days ago. As we reflect on the lives of our fallen colleagues, we pray for those who are injured and we ask for comfort for all who mourn, and we know at this hour there are sailors and marines and coast guardsmen, who go in harm’s way, standing the watch, defending our nation. May they each know that a grateful nation stands proudly beside them.”

The invocation was followed by a moment of silence, and then speeches and awards for CNN founder Ted Turner, GM chairman Dan Akerson, former Marine commandant, Gen. P.X. Kelley, and Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison. But my guess is everyone at that gala went home remembering the words but especially the music.
Flags graced the end of one whole end of the room at the Lone Sailor Awards dinner.
Photographs by Carol Joynt.

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