Dual Loyalties

My opinion on the people who shape our world

Monday, March 14, 2005

Simone Ledeen on Walter Reed on National Review Online

Simone Ledeen on Walter Reed on National Review Online: "December 23, 2004, 8:52 a.m.
Their Blood, Our Freedom
Supporting our wounded troops.

By Simone Ledeen

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."

General Nyland, the assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, was there too. He talked to all the Marines and their families to find out what they needed and how he could help. He spent a particularly long time with a young enlisted man who had lost both of his legs and was there with his mother.

Another little-mentioned event was the holiday party at Walter Reed held by the Helping Our Heroes Foundation. The party room, in the old Red Cross building, was filled to capacity with both wounded and volunteers. There was live country music, a choir, and even a Santa Claus. Several high-ranking government officials also came — someone from Vice President Cheney's office as well as Doug Feith and Secretary Mineta, both with their wives.

I spent some time there with soldiers and their families. I met one kid whose head (the top of it) got blown off last month. It's amazing that he's able to walk and talk — he even makes sense. He really wants to get his Purple Heart from President Bush and was meeting with the Command Sergeant Major of the Army the next day to talk about it. His dad was there too, in a wheelchair — a Vietnam vet. I could barely control my emotions in front of them. But if they can handle it, what right do I have to be overwhelmed?

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.

He also told us how they went to see Chris Isaak's sound-check last weekend at a legendary D.C. nightspot. They were treated like kings and offered VIP tickets to any show they wanted.

Another evening the same friends of mine took two young Marines out for dinner and a movie. Both Marines were walking with canes; they were amputees (one had lost a leg, the other a foot, in Iraq) and they were still mastering their prosthetic limbs. With the haircuts it was pretty easy to tell who they were. When they all asked for the bill at the end of the night they were told (again) it had been taken care of. This time the tab had been paid by the father of the hostess, himself a Vietnam vet. When pressed he came over to the table. The two Marines stood up straight, shook his hand, and said, "Thank you, sir." The man responded, "Welcome home," and thanked them right back. When he left, one of the guys turned and said that every single time he went out someone paid for his dinner.

For me, spending time with our troops at Walter Reed is very personal. I think about all the convoys I rode in all those months to and from the Iraqi Ministry of Finance. All those hours our escorts sat out in front of the ministry, waiting for us to finish our work. I frequently wondered, "Why is my life worth more than theirs? Why do I get to be protected by these young, beautiful men who have their whole lives in front of them? What makes me so special?" I came to see it was the work I was doing that was important. So every time — every single time I went — their presence motivated me to get more done, to push the Iraqis to work harder. Because if someone was going to die that day, I wanted it to have some meaning.

Spending time with these wounded heroes is my way of thanking the guys who did that for me — who guarded my life every day. And even though most of America hasn't been to Iraq, we know that our troops are out overseas protecting all of us, just as they protected me. I am proud and happy to see how America thanks these brave men and women.

If any NRO readers would like to send holiday messages to our wounded troops at Walter Reed Army Medical Center or Bethesda Naval Hospital, please send me an email and I will deliver them before the New Year. I'd also like to say thank you on their behalf for all of you silent and invisible who pay restaurant tabs and donate money, phone cards, and packages, and for everything else you do to support our military. It makes a difference.

— Simone Ledeen is a former Coalition Provisional Authority adviser to the Iraqi Ministry of Finance in Baghdad. For more on the Walter Reed weekends, see Noemie Emery's piece in the December 31, 2004, issue of National Review."


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