|By Carol Joynt
The rooftop Terrace restaurant of The Kennedy Center was filled on Veterans Day evening, but the faces weren’t the usual suspects who dominate the Washington social arena. There was a lot of ramrod straight posture and there were many dress uniforms with knife-sharp creases, shiny brass, and gold braid that ran from neck to shoulder. But there were also, among the many racks of ribbons and medals, more than a few Purple Hearts, just as there were more than a few guests wearing artificial limbs or riding in wheelchairs.
There are glittering parties every night in Washington, but few can claim the poignancy of this gala affair that was held to honor the Iraq and Afghanistan wounded who reside at Walter Reed Army Hospital.
Four members of that class, all who served in Vietnam, got together with their wives a few years ago to give the Iraq and Afghanistan wounded, and their families, “tangible evidence their service and sacrifice were appreciated.” What retired officers Robert C. Doheny, (Bronze Star), Paul B. Haseman, (Bronze Star), Hartmut H. Lau, (Silver Star, Bronze Star, Purple Heart) and Richard E. Waterman, (Bronze Star)started was CAUSE, an all-volunteer relief organization that strives to augment the healing process.
Washington is a city at war and it is the subtext of much that goes on here. It is a boil that festers on Capitol Hill, the basis for the bunker mentality at the White House, and a frequent thread of even the most polite conversation. It’s impossible to talk war here and not take a side and not be political.
|But the folks at CAUSE are a movement where there is no argument, and where everyone wants to do what they can to help. In an excellent series that will likely win a Pulitzer, The Washington Post earlier this year broke the story on the miserable conditions in some of the wards at Walter Reed.
The Post also reported on the struggle faced by some wounded to qualify for benefits after discharge. It’s not a given. A panel decides on a “disability rating” and that rating can be the difference between receiving ongoing care or being flat out of luck. Among the crowd was Maj. Chris Hartley, a lawyer who works to help the wounded soldiers get a better rating. Nonetheless, this was a group of people who put the word duty before complaint, at least at a formal dinner. When I asked whether the Bush Administration owes the military an apology for being sent to war understaffed, or whether conditions are better at Walter Reed, all I got was "no comment."
The guests who were honored with applause and standing ovations, in addition to some former Walter Reed patients, were the hospital staff who tend to them, and the many CAUSE volunteers who try to make their lives easier.
It can be as simple as providing new clean clothing for a wounded soldier who has been shipped out of Iraq with nothing but his shredded uniform or medical garb, to helping a mother who has flown to her son’s bedside and knows nothing about Washington, but needs to get around, or needs DVD’s for her son or daughter or a haircut for herself.
What CAUSE tries to do especially is provide entertainment for the wounded, because, as one parent of a wounded vet said, “after thirty minutes of physical therapy they are exhausted and need a diversion.” The diversions are often movies, video games, and gaming systems made available to the soldiers free of charge.
CAUSE also provides “gift packages” with stamps, magazines, games, clothes and books, and “Spa Days,” when hairdressers, massage therapists, and other beauty professionals descend on Mologne House – the Walter Reed “hotel” for recovering wounded and their families – and make it a spa for the day. A lot of well known and not so well known individuals, from here and elsewhere, try to find time to visit Walter Reed to give these young men and women appreciation and comfort.
|While many of us would take the gifted supplies, entertainment perks and celebrity visits for granted, or would assume they are provided by the military, the soldiers and family members made clear that CAUSE, and similar groups, fill a void and provide an essential part of the healing process.
“The message that nothing is too good for American veterans is a powerful part of recovery,” he told the room, recalling his time at Walter Reed. “The visits from actors, singers and other celebrities. It means so much. You never knew who you were going to see on the ward. The impact this has on the healing process cannot be expressed in words.”
A profound silence followed his revelation that one of his best friends was just this weekend killed in Afghanistan. “He is my seventh West Point classmate to be killed in action.”
Listening to Jackson’s remarks were among the brass and other officials who determined and continue to determine the military course of the war. Gen. George Casey, the Army Chief of Staff, sat with retired Gen. Wesley Clark, who is best known as the former NATO commander and one-time presidential candidate, but is also a Vietnam veteran who was shot four times by a Viet Cong soldier wielding an AK-47.
|Another much-decorated retired general at the dinner was Montgomery Meigs, a veteran of troop or division commands in Vietnam, Desert Storm and Bosnia, as well as a descendent of Civil War general, Montgomery C. Meigs. The man brought in to fix the problems at Walter Reed, Maj. Gen. Eric Schoomaker, was there, beaming as friends congratulated him on his nomination to be the new Army Surgeon General.
Long-time Donald Rumsfeld ally, Ray Dubois, was there with wife Helen. Like “Rummy,” Dubois has left the Pentagon, where he was a deputy undersecretary of Defense. He’s parked at a think tank but is also helping Rumsfeld with his book. The Homeland Security correspondent for Fox News, Jennifer Griffin, was emcee. She was there with her husband, former New York Times Jerusalem correspondent, Greg Myre, who is writing a book on his years in Israel.
|Even with the brass in the room, those who got the special attention were the wounded soldiers who arrived by bus from the hospital. Army Staff Sgt. Luther Richardson of Tuscaloosa, Al., with wife JoAnn, who splits her time between visiting him at Walter Reed and raising their three children back home. Richardson was wounded in April 2005, on his second tour of duty.
Col. Gregory Gadson of Chesapeake Va., lost both legs to a roadside bomb in Baghdad in May of this year. Maj. David Rozelle, who lost his leg to a land mine, is one of ten amputees to return to Iraq for more in-country duty. Capt. Daniel Downs came over from the hospital to be with his mother, father and brother. Downs got much of his leg shot up in Iraq, but is on the mend. He could soon return to active duty.
|His brother, Marine aviator Matthew Downs, has served three tours in Iraq. One man in a wheel chair was not an Iraq war veteran. John Kousi is President of the Eastwind Shipping Co., of New York and got his disabling injuries in an Aspen skiing accident, but he feels a kindred spirit with the wounded warriors and plans to volunteer his time to give them comfort. Kousi was there with his daughters and son-in-law Joe Flanigan, star of the SciFi hit “Stargate: Atlantis.” Flanigan, who has played Lt. Col John Sheppard on more than 70 episodes of the show, will volunteer some of his time at Walter Reed, also.
A member of the British Army assigned to the British Embassy here, and hobbling around on crutches with an elaborate leg brace, was Lt. Col. Andrew Dennis, with wife Sara-Jane. Did he get his injury in Iraq? “No,” he said. “I was six months in Iraq and then returned to Washington and got run over by a car.” Feeling somewhat unworthy in the company of the war wounded, Dennis hid his crutches in photographs.
|Photographs by Carol Joynt|