Driving onto the Walter Reed National Medical Center at Bethesda has the feel of driving on to many military bases—the huge front gates with uniformed men and women checking IDs, the fenced-off the perimeter, the no-nonsense buildings facing off in the distance. But inside Building 62, you know you are in a very different place. This is the outpatient treatment center. This is where young men with wide shoulders, clean shaven faces, buzz haircuts, sometimes in their PT clothes, sometimes in the black-skull-and-cross-bone type platoon or unit t-shirts, zip around expertly in wheelchairs.
I was doing a Meet and Greet at a long table, copies of You Know When the Men Are Gone arranged prettily next to me, signing books and handing them out to anyone who lingered and made eye contact. There was another table next to mine, unmanned and stacked high with boxes of Girl Scout Cookies. I slid a signed paperback across to a waiting young man, twenty years old or so, with a ruddy, Irish complexion, a rosy thumbprint on each cheek, and the darkest of lashes ringing his big green eyes. He’d asked me to make the inscription out to his mother.
“Don’t forget to grab a box of cookies,” I said.
He hesitated. “My neighbor sent those,” he said. “She sent a whole load to me in Afghanistan, but the mail truck got hit with an IED. You should have seen it, cookies were everywhere.” He grinned and the guys behind him chuckled. “So she sent me those to make up for it.”
“Seriously?” I asked, imagining Tagalongs and Samoas, melted chocolate, caramel, coconut, raining down from the sky. “Girl Scout cookies hit by an IED? That’s incredible— can I steal that for a story?”
“Sure, you do that,” he grinned again, the red splotches on his cheeks a little brighter. Then he and his Marine buddy, his buddy’s wife and their one-year old son in a stroller, wheeled away, heading to the bowling alley.
I watched them, both Marines missing most of their legs, my smile starting to hurt. Here they were, joking about improvised explosive devices, and I was too much of a coward to ask about the one that hit them and changed their young lives forever.
Perry, Siobhan, and Loretta in Building 62
My Author Meet and Greet was just one of the many free events that Perry Pidgeon Hooks and Loretta Yenson, both of Hook Book Events (http://www.hooksbookevents.com/), organize for the wounded heroes of Walter Reed/Bethesda Medical. They have brought other authors to Building 62, such as Max Cleland of Heart of a Patriot, Sebastian Junger of War, and Nathaniel Fick of One Bullet Away. Perry’s company, Hooks Book Events, with the help of generous donors, as well as the author’s publisher (in my case, an indulgent Penguin/NAL) donate boxes and boxes of books for these soldiers to browse and take home at no cost.
I learned from this experience that some of these soldiers and Marines stay at Walter Reed upwards of six months. When they are able to move around on their own, they and their families are given housing on the grounds of the medical complex. So there are plenty of young wives with small children who arrive with a suitcase while their soldiers are fitted with prosthetics and attend physical training. There is a bowling alley, baseball diamond, and fitness center at Reed, but there isn’t a library (there is talk of one being built in the future) and things can get slow for soldiers and families day to day, so Hooks Book Events sponsors these events in order to offer a diversion.
When the first Marine in a wheelchair approached my table, I had to try very hard not to cry. And he certainly did not want my tears, he wanted me to inscribe a book to his fiancé. They lined up, these incredible young men, waited patiently, asked me to write sweet things to their wives, girlfriends, mothers. They laughed, told me stories, played with the front wheels of their wheelchairs, energy to burn. I smiled in return, made small chat, hoped I was pronouncing Semper Fi correctly to the Marines, asked if the Army soldiers had been through Fort Hood. The spouses, also devastatingly young, willowy and pretty, thanked me for being there, shook my hand, said they were excited to a read a book about them. And there were mothers. Unlike the military members and their spouses, who somehow all seemed in great and hopeful spirits, the mothers looked stunned. They seemed to be trying to grip their emotions tightly, but their faces hid nothing. Their faces said: “Why did this happen to my beautiful boy?”
Perry and Loretta expertly moved among the people who stopped at the table, asked about home, how long they had been at Walter Reed, or how they had been wounded. Now, from the hindsight of my keyboard, of course I wished I had talked to them too, really talked to them, the soldiers and spouses, the moms and dads, but while I was there I was afraid, afraid to sound like an idiot, afraid to pry, afraid that I would crack and start to cry. Only later did I realize I had failed my vocation. I was there to give books to the soldiers and their families, but I am also the writer, I was there to take their stories home with me, write them down, and get them to the reader, let the reader feel as if they shook those brave boys’ hands, let the reader see their scars.
WAYS WE CAN HELP:
Perry Pidgeon Hooks can always use donations for her ‘Meet the Author’/book giveaways in order to purchase more books (her company, Hooks Book Events, donates around 50 books, then relies on donors and the author’s publisher to donate 50-100 more to hand out for free to soldiers at Reed). Thank you to my publisher, Penguin/NAL, for donating fifty plus books for this event, as well as one of Perry’s kind supporters for donating a box of You Know When the Men Are Gone.
In addition to the author Meet and Greets, Perry works with wonderful women who organize a clothing drive, which is also an essential way to help. These soldiers, spouses, and children who live at Walter Reed indefinitely are in need of clothing— everything from baby clothes to military ball gowns. Even men’s business clothes for those soldiers who will be getting out of the service and transitioning into civilian life, facing job interviews and office jobs. So any lightly used, good quality clothing is especially needed. If you can help out in any way, please contact Perry directly at her email address of firstname.lastname@example.org.
It was humbling to have all these young men and their wives thank me for giving them a mere book, when I know how much more they have given to our country. They were so appreciative. Perry said that she has never seen so much gratitude as she does at the clothing drive, it being difficult for these kids to go shopping for themselves (because the ones I met really were kids, they seemed like high school athletes more than seasoned soldiers who have recently faced life-threatening injuries that will stay with them). There are also two tailors who go to the clothing drives and donate their time to fit and hem the clothes.
Two extraordinary non-profits that also help our wounded troops and their families are:
Wounded Warrior Family Support (one of the things they do is send families and their wounded warriors on an all-expense paid, handicap-accessible vacation to help facilitate the family’s readjustment to the soldier’s return): www.wwfs.org/
The Wounded Warrior Project (their motto is “The greatest casualty is being forgotten”): http://www.woundedwarriorproject.org/
To find out more about the facilities at Bethesda, please got to Walter Reed’s official website at http://www.bethesda.med.navy.mil/
Thank you to all for reading this blog, and please spread the word about our wounded warriors at Walter Reed/Bethesda Medical. Please don’t let them be forgotten.