Wearing my royal blue vest on a groggy Saturday morning, I make the rounds in the IC Unit at Walter Reed.
I along with two other Red Cross volunteers, am “staffing the cart”, which refers to making way through all of the wards housing veterans. The veterans range in age and injury but many are in their twenties and have just arrived from war torn Iraq or Afghanistan.
Staffing the cart involves toting around essential sundry items, remedial entertainment, and Girl Scout cookies. But the cart involves something else more important yet less tangible – putting a smile on a wounded warrior’s face.
It was my third or fourth weekend staffing the cart and we were making our last rounds to the final and most critical ward. As we push through the double doors, we are alerted to a sign on the door: “Staff Only.” At this point, we know that we are allowed inside but are uneasy knowing that it’s not a pretty sight. We tread lightly as we pass by rooms of men and women with severe injuries who are often saturated with pain and painkillers. I venture alone down the hall and see a strong, shirtless, young man with aviator sunglasses on sitting in a room with two fretful parents at his side. His name is Patrick, and he arrived from Germany the night before. Unlike many of the other patients in the ward, his weeks of testing, doctors’ appointments, diagnosis and drug regimens haven’t even begun. Timidly, I walk in the room and offer my wares. Diane, the soldier’s mom, quickly strikes up a conversation. She appears drained; yet is extremely upbeat. She comes over to the cart as she chats about her son, Patrick. Sadly, Patrick was stuck in a tank as it became engulfed in flames. But Diane doesn’t concern herself with what put Patrick in that bed. She wants to talk about his burnt IPod and how under the circumstances, he looks well and remains her handsome son. But underneath her positive spirit, a cold truth remains – his injuries are internal, consisting of smoke inhalation, possible brain damage, internal bleeding or bruised organs.
Diane reaches for a hand mirror from the cart and turns back to the room, smiling at her son: “Pat do you want a mirror?” And then turning to me: “ He needs a mirror – he hasn’t seen himself since the accident…Also, how about a razor or a brush?” So after a bit of searching we find all of the necessary items and she thanks us profusely. Then, almost off the cuff, she casually mentions she has another son in Iraq and other children at home.
I push the cart away with mixed feelings. Joy: I’ve just brightened the day of a soldier and his mother in distress. Deep sadness: Patrick was ailing. I found myself asking the question: How can a woman a mother give her baby away to a war and a cause? How can this woman give not just one… but two?
The thought of Patrick and his mother’s took up a prominent place in my heart. I felt confident that the little bit of relief I was able to provide was a good deed.
Two weeks later, although it felt like eons, given my extraordinarily busy work schedule at my full time job, I mostly forgot about my encounter with this particular hero and his parents.
On a random Thursday – I can’t even recall the date – I received an email from my contact at the Red Cross reaching out for the support of Luke’s Wings. An undisclosed family was wondering if we were able to supplement a family of six’ trip to DC to visit their son and sibling who is a wounded soldier at Walter Reed. My heart began to pound… I knew we’d found the first family… or rather they had found us!
Between numerous work emails and conference calls I managed to reach out to the rest of the team, got the support I needed, and purchased the three remaining tickets. The Red Cross bought three, and Luke’s Wings bought three – it was an all or nothing situation because the mother couldn’t leave the kids unattended at home. The purchase process was a bit chaotic considering the family was planning on surprising the soldier three days later on his 20th birthday.
The tickets were purchased. The family arrived. Then nothing. I waited patiently for the father to return my calls for an update, but understandably under the strained circumstances, he wasn’t particularly responsive. At that point I decided to the fact just believe that Luke’s Wings had done its job regardless if we received an official application, or picture or in the end a response. I knew we had done good.
The following Saturday, I arrived bright and early to the overcrowded and somewhat disorganized Red Cross office waiting to meet with Catherine, the Red Cross volunteer manager, and find out information and get an update about our family. She wasn’t there, but I did find a note with her cell phone number. She said she had left an envelope for Mrs. Madison on the desk with paperwork to sign. I decided for this Saturday instead of staffing the notorious cookie cart, I would wait for the elusive Mrs. Madison to sign the paperwork. I was hopeful but not expectant.
A few cups of coffee and several self-indulgent Girl Scout cookies later, I heard a familiar voice. At that moment it occurred to me: Luke’s Wings first family was helping the soldier and his family that I had met the previous week! How serendipitous! I actually knew the family we had helped!!! It was shocking, amazing, beautiful, nerve-wracking, and overwhelming – all at the same time. I can’t say that I was the perfect diplomat at the time. I didn’t really know how to react. I wondered aloud if I should ask for a picture, a meeting, a re-introduction, … I was praying for a sign. Thirty or so minutes later after hearing about the family… Patrick is one of 12 children, the families life in Chicago, details about Patrick having picked up the dead bodies of friends and fellow soldiers, millions of prayers, prank phone calls from Patrick telling his mom to prepare dinner for him and 120 guys when they show up next week (with laughs and smiles), later – the mom casually asks “where do I send the thank you note?” I dutifully and quickly write down all of the contact information for Luke’s Wings and me… as I’m writing she says… “The whole family is waiting for me, come with me, meet them.”
And so I immediately started searching through the Red Cross drawers for a disposable camera and proceed to take the long walk, across Walter Reed to meet the family. And boy, if every step was worth a million dollars, the money wouldn’t have compared to the experience I had for next the 10 minutes with the Madison family.
We rounded the corner to the parking lot in front of the red brick Malone house. And there they were. Eight of them scattered around of all ages waiting for Mom’s return. She managed to gather them up and introduce the “nice lady” who helped with their tickets and requested a picture. As you can see from the photographs, they are represent a wide range of ages. Patrick is clearly the one with the crutches and sunglasses, which I’ve since found out he’s been wearing ever since August when a bomb went off so close to his eyes that they are extremely sensitive to light.
Mom says, “ Say thanks” and the children express their gratitude in so many ways. This trip was their summer vacation. I offer to host them again and say that they can stay in my apartment next time, which sparks the littlest giggle. I quickly snap some pictures as they group together and judging a sense of urgency for them to hop in the rental car and see some of the Washington, DC sites, I take my leave.
As I walk away, tears are streaming down my face. Every minute, every second that I have spent working for Luke’s Wings has paid off ten times over. I wish that every one of our volunteers, donors, and committee members could have been with me; yet somehow I knew they were. It was so intimate and special. I realized at that moment that all of the hard work had paid off, and at the same moment I couldn’t wait to do it all over again for many more families to come.