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Sunday, November 28, 2004

Where Do We Get Such Men?

From the Washington Post.

Some Payback for Wounded Marines
By Caryle Murphy

The glittery glass chandeliers, gold linen napkins and fine china made an elegant setting. The food was traditional Thanksgiving fare: turkey, mashed potatoes, green beans and pumpkin pie. But the table conversation was far from conventional. "Did some damage, huh?" Manuel A. Rodriguez asked, referring to the AK-47 ammunition that smashed Paul Powell III's right leg.

"Mmm," responded Powell, 21, looking at his outstretched leg, sheathed in a metal brace to keep his shattered bones in place. "Hey, at least you have your leg, right?" Rodriguez, 20, said encouragingly, showing the understanding of a man who knows what it means to lose one. His right leg ends mid-shin. "Yes, that's true," Powell replied.

The two Marine corporals, in wheelchairs after being wounded in Iraq, were among seven recuperating Marines who, with family members, were served a Thanksgiving luncheon yesterday at the Columbia Country Club in Chevy Chase. They were also serenaded by members of "The President's Own" U.S. Marine Band. And the waiters who served the group of about 55 people included a U.S. Marine Corps general in his red-striped dress-blue trousers.

"Well, gosh, they've served us. We'll serve them back. . . . It's the least we can do for these guys and their families," said Maj. Gen. Tom Jones, head of training for the Marine Corps. "It's just a way to say thank you. We want to take the pressure off the families. . . . We just want to tell them thanks for what you've done for us." The luncheon was organized by David J. Branson, an old friend of Jones's and a member of the country club. Branson said he invited Marines recuperating at National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda and at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, the nation's primary destination for rehabilitating military amputees. Both hospitals have had surges in new patients in recent weeks as U.S. forces retook the city of Fallujah from insurgents. "We had a number of people come in very recently to Bethesda Naval," said Lt. Gen. James N. Mattis, commander of the Quantico Marine Base. "Not all of them are stabilized or mobile enough" to have attended the luncheon. At last count, on Nov. 15, 47 patients were being treated at Walter Reed, compared with the usual 30 to 40, said public affairs officer Don Vandrey. Twenty-three are amputees, he said.

Vandrey said that since the invasion of Iraq began in March 2003, the hospital has treated 3,627 war-related patients. Of those, 881 were battle casualties and the rest victims of accidents or illness. Many who attended yesterday's luncheon said there is a determination in the country to see that servicemen and women returning from Iraq are treated better than those who returned from Vietnam. "Kids coming back from Vietnam were shabbily treated by the antiwar groups. I know that will not happen this time," said Nick Glakas, a former Navy officer in Vietnam. "The country will not turn against the warriors." Glakas is president of the Career College Association, an organization of 1,250 colleges and universities. He said that it has launched a scholarship program for veterans, making them eligible for a $1,000 tuition rebate at 225 educational institutions. The community's concern for Iraqi veterans was also evident in the $20,000 presented yesterday by country club members to the Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund, which raises money to help families of wounded Marines.

Staff Sgt. Jack Sigman, 29, was there with his parents, two siblings and fiancee Summer LaVigne, 24. "It's nice to get out of the hospital," Sigman said. "And it's nice to get some really good food. It's not quite as good as home-cooked and, you know, family, but very good." Sigman's right leg was amputated after he was wounded by a rocket-propelled grenade in Ramadi on Oct. 19. He is waiting to be transferred from Bethesda to Walter Reed to get his prosthesis and learn how to walk. "I've been told it could take up to six months, but I don't plan on taking that long," said Sigman, who wore a red T-shirt that carried a message: "Support Your Local Vietnam Vets." Sigman's father, John Sigman, who lives in Cumberland, Va., was a helicopter crew chief in Vietnam. "There was nothing like this when we came home from Vietnam," he said. "It was entirely different. There was no outpouring of support."

Jack Sigman does not plan to let his injury hold him back. "It happened. I'm not happy that it happened. But I can't let it stop me," he said. "I lived through it. I got things to do." And what is one of those things? "Once I have my leg and all, come May," he said, "me and some of my friends are going to be riding our motorcycles cross country for the Rolling Thunder," a nonprofit group that sponsors a Ride for Freedom to Washington every Memorial Day weekend to honor veterans of all wars. Rodriguez, who is from San Antonio, said he, too, is ready to roll. "I work out every day. . . . I want to get walking," said Rodriguez, who borrowed a trumpet and played the "Marines' Hymn" with the Marine Band. Rodriguez, an outpatient at Walter Reed, was injured Sept. 3 about 30 miles south of Baghdad when a 120mm artillery round hit his vehicle.

Powell, who is from Portland, Ore., was at the luncheon with his father, Paul Powell II, and stepmother, Tammy Powell. "I feel good to be out of the hospital," the younger Powell said. He said he was shot in the leg during a house-to-house sweep to clear insurgents out of Fallujah. It happened, he said, Nov. 10, the "Marine Corps' birthday." His father, a printer, called this Thanksgiving "very surreal." Nodding toward her stepson, Tammy Powell added: "We have a lot to be thankful for. Because we're sitting here with him." At the same table, Janet and Kirby South of Greenwood, Ind., sat on either side of their second child, Lance Cpl. Klay South, 28.

South cannot talk easily these days. In Fallujah, on Veterans Day, he was shot from three feet away. The bullet ripped through his mouth and remains lodged in his throat. He will need months of dental and plastic surgery. "I'm overwhelmed by the concern and the care and thoughtfulness," Janet South said. "It's a way to honor these young men who've put their lives on the front line." Before the food was served, Janet South left the room, wiping tears from her eyes. "I was thinking about my son and how difficult it is for him," she said later. "He has a facial wound, which is a bit different. And he's so brave. He inspires me. . . . He's a fighter." Although his injury has been traumatic for the family, she said, "it's more traumatic for the young men that are on the ward" at Bethesda, where her son is recuperating.

But yesterday was Thanksgiving. And Janet South was living the day. "We are so thankful," she said. "We're thankful that we're able to be here with our son. There are a lot of parents who aren't as fortunate as we are because they have caskets, they have funerals. We don't, and we are so thankful."

© 2004 The Washington Post Company


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