San Diego Union Tribune

September 21, 2007

Wounded service members get special receptions at Pentagon

COPLEY NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON – Eight times a year, a quiet side corridor at the Pentagon becomes a noisy passageway of healing for wounded warriors on their long journey to recovery.


 

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On a recent Friday, it took only minutes for Corridor 3 to fill with hundreds of soldiers and civilians. They mustered along both sides of the hallway, forming a veritable gantlet of camouflage and business attire.

Idle conversation gave way to full attention on the far end of the hall. Then the crowd began clapping – a slow, steady cadence. It was muted at first but grew in volume, power and speed. The U.S. Army Band Brass Quintet, tucked into an alcove shared with vending machines, kicked into a medley of “Stars and Stripes Forever, “God Bless America” and “Grand Old Flag.”

A procession began moving down the hall – a parade of men and women, some in uniform and some wearing jeans, many in wheelchairs, many missing legs or arms or fitted with prostheses or bearing the scars of explosions, others walking with canes, some able to proceed unassisted.

Welcome to what's known as the Pentagon's “Wounded Warrior Tour.”

The Army started the tour several years ago to recognize wounded soldiers, without any expectation that it would become a regular event, said Maj. Anne Edgecomb, an Army spokeswoman. “Originally, this was a small thing,” she said. It soon became clear that it had the power to endure.

It has become one of the most popular events in the building, judging from the number of Defense Department employees who pack the corridor for the welcome when it is held the second Friday of the month, eight times a year.

Yet for those outside the Pentagon, it is one of the best-kept secrets, largely because media coverage of the event is generally forbidden.

The most recent procession included about 35 service members from Walter Reed Army Medical Center who have been hospitalized after service in Iraq or Afghanistan. They were mostly soldiers in this Army-sponsored event, but Marines and sailors also attended.

A woman in a wheelchair led the procession. She was followed by a man in a wheelchair wearing a T-shirt celebrating the “dogface soldiers” of the Army's 3rd Infantry division.

“Thank you,” said another man, who has lost a leg. His wheelchair was pushed by a small group of family members. The next soldier had a sheepish smile on his boyish-looking face. He, too, was missing a leg.

Another man in a wheelchair was accompanied by a little girl in a stroller, presumably his daughter. She waved an American flag.

They proceeded through a sea of applause and admiration – some reacting with wonder, or appreciation or a smile, while others bore little expression as they shook hands, expressing their gratitude or simply acknowledging the support.

“It makes you proud, but at the same time it tears the heart right out of your chest,” said Stanley Freeman, as the wounded warriors continued on for a VIP tour of the Pentagon and a private lunch with generals in the executive dining room.

Freeman, a Vietnam War veteran who works as a civilian logistics director for the Marine Corps, said he makes it a point to come to the event whenever he can. He has attended almost a dozen of these welcomes.

“It's emotional; it's very touching,” he said. “You can see how tough they are.”

“They hold their pride,” added Connie King, another civilian Marine Corps employee. A former Marine herself, she observed that the considerable number of wounded women in the procession shows that this is a “different kind of war” from past conflicts. “They have a long journey, and we just want to make sure they're not forgotten,” she said.

Sgt. Maj. Dennis Edelbrock, the noncommissioned officer in charge of the Army's brass quintet, has been playing for the tour since the first time it was held.

Early on, he said, there was debate about whether it should become a permanent fixture.

“I said: 'Hey, this is a no-brainer. This is where we need to be. Nothing we do could be more important,' ” Edelbrock recalled. He said the experience of playing for the wounded warriors continues to be moving.

“They're guys who've done what other people talk about doing,” he said. “These guys have done it and they've paid a price for it. It's going to affect them the rest of their lives.” Yet, he added, “so many of them are very positive about it.”

Saul Rosenberg, a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of California San Francisco, who has testified on military health issues before Congress, believes that events such as the wounded-warrior tour have a significant, positive impact on recovering service members.

Recent research conducted on troops returning from war shows that “social support” is one of the most important factors in recovery, Rosenberg said.

“And even a stranger from the military who really understands what your sacrifice is about – and hearing all that applause and seeing all those people who got up from their desks and came out – it's healing,” he said. “It's mentally healing. I don't care if it's (just) 15 minutes.”

Though the Army says it generally prohibits media coverage of the event at participants' request, it allowed part of the most recent tour to be observed.

Edgecomb, the Army spokeswoman, said the wounded personnel have “always expressed that they just want it to be . . . invisible” to the media.

No interviews with any of the wounded warriors or photographs of the event were allowed.

Not surprisingly, each tour requires many hours of preparation, and a different agency volunteers to help out each time.

On this day, it was the Army Office of the Assistant Chief of Staff of Installation Management that provided more than 60 ushers and escorts for the event, including Terry Dingus, an Army veteran who is now a civilian employee at the office.

Dingus said the group also raised several thousand dollars through car washes and bake sales to pay for gift packages for the patients, which he said contained phone calling cards, movie tickets and other items.

“These kids are doing a lot,” Dingus said. “I admire the heck out of them for what they do.”

 

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