Tag: Walter Reed

The Face of Memorial Day

May 24th, 2015 — 10:01am

As Memorial Day approaches, I keep thinking of a young man I met in March 2012 during a book event at the Walter Reed National Military Hospital in Bethesda: Sergeant Derek McConnell. I spoke with many devastatingly young men and women that day, in wheelchairs, with crutches or canes, with scars and burns.

I remembered Derek because of his broad shoulders and fresh, baby face, as well as his mother who shared my first name, another Siobhan who lived with a lifetime of mispronunciation.

Derek had ‘the map of Ireland on his face’—red haired, fair skinned, smattering of freckles, a mischievous look in his eyes. On July 23, 2011, on patrol in Kandahar, Afghanistan, Derek was struck by an improvised explosive device while trying to rescue a fellow soldier. He lost his left leg from the hip and the right leg just above the knee and received blast wounds, including a fractured right arm, a skull fracture and kidney damage.

A year and a half later, while I was chatting with his mother, Siobhan Mary Fuller, he was doing wheelies in his wheelchair and joking around with his glossy-haired fiancé in the hospital foyer. His mom told me a little about Derek’s ongoing recovery, the thirty-three surgeries, transfusions, dialysis.

His vitality and pluck stayed with me, but I was haunted by this other Siobhan, this woman about my age, her ready smile and capable attitude. From New Jersey, she had moved to Maryland and utterly dedicated herself to her son’s recovery. I was pregnant at the time with a four year old at home, and I couldn’t imagine finally handing a child over to adulthood, having vigilantly gotten him that far, safe and whole, and then to have him return to me wounded, missing limbs, needing to learn to walk again.

On March 18, 2013, scanning my Facebook feed, I read that Derek had died at Walter Reed. The young man who had fought again and again couldn’t fight the impossible odds anymore.

And then there is one of my husband’s closest friends, Captain KJ Smith, who my husband has known since he was fourteen.

I remember meeting KJ while bartending one very busy night at my father’s Irish pub. He was off to the side, waiting patiently as thirsty customers waved money in the air and I slung pints and brimming wine glasses. He stood above everyone else, exuding the contained physical power of a star athlete, with thick black eyebrows and eyes wide with kindness when we finally shook hands.

KJ had given up soccer scholarships to go to West Point and worked doggedly to join that long gray line. He was planning to propose to his girlfriend on mid-tour leave when he died in Baghdad on December 8, 2005, his humvee hit by an IED.

When I see the Memorial Day photos of Arlington, row upon row of engraved names, I know those simple white markers and small fluttering American flags represent the entire lives of men and women like Derek McConnell and KJ Smith. Young, healthy, strong, willing to go places most of us don’t even Google. They are the boys running across a soccer field, the kid bagging your groceries, the high-schooler getting straight As in science, the girls playing varsity volleyball, every one of them somebody’s child who had an entire life of promise ahead. They are our own children in a couple of years.

Please remember them this Memorial Day.

To read my March 12 blog about meeting some of the young military men and women at Walter Reed please go to: http://siobhanfallon.com/blog/?m=201203

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The Kindness of Strangers

August 16th, 2012 — 2:37pm

During interviews or book club discussions, I’m often asked how civilians can help our military. So I thought I’d take up a little cyberspace to recognize some of the exceptional ways people have gone above and beyond in support of our troops.

A few months ago, I wrote a blog about a trip to Walter Reed. Many readers responded and asked for more information about the clothing and book drives that have been taking place there, outfitting our young Vets with everything from ties and suits for upcoming interviews, as well as providing children’s clothes and books for the families that live on the hospital grounds while their wounded Soldiers and Marines attend difficult rehabilitation.

Soon after, I was asked to join a You Know When the Men Are Gone book discussion via speaker phone with the Philadelphia law firm Woodcock Washburn LLP, led by Barbara Felicetti, the firm’s librarian. While preparing for our discussion, Barbara happened to read the original blog about my Hooks Books event at Walter Reed, and was taken with the plight of our military there, many of whom are missing limbs or suffering from brain injuries. She mentioned that her firm often sponsored local charities and that they might like to send “some things.”

Janis Calvo and some WW Book Club members with boxed donations (clockwise from left): Barbara Felicetti, Marie Ware, Lori Roman, Faith Poore, Kelly Freels, Wendy Troester, Anissa Haynes

Well, the kind folk at Woodcock Washburn outdid themselves and “some things” became a deluge of generosity. Janis Calvo (who first recommended You Know When the Men are Gone to the Woodcock Washburn book club, and also knitted 20 pairs of booties to send to Walter Reed!!! I love you Janis!) spent countless lunch hours alongside fellow employee Betty Rackus, organizing donated goods and packing everything up. The facilities manager, Bill Jordan (himself ex-military), helped with staging space and getting the materials shipped to Walter Reed.

Here is an abbreviated list of the things they shipped:
16 boxes of books (including 3 boxes of children’s books)
More than 120 neckties (sent early for a job fair being held on Walter Reed, see flyer below)
22 boxes of clothing (supposedly enough to clothe Rhode Island 🙂 )
And extras: handmade hair bows; fancy fabric back packs; shoes; women’s clothing and coats; men’s pants and shirts; a Bill Blass trench coat; new-bought socks and ties, 4 bags of neatly folded and labeled children’s clothing – with little shoes!

The ties were sent out first in anticipation of the upcoming job fair. Here is an excerpt from an email from Cindy Dwyer, the wonderful woman who organizes these drives:

“We had our “interview clothing” distribution yesterday at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. The guys came out of the woodwork! We advertized an hour-long visit but were there for over 2 hours as guys kept coming! I did have one lady with the great responsibility of matching ties (with suits). She had them all rolled up just like Nordstrom’s.

When the guys left they were looking good thanks in part to your efforts! Please pass on my sincere thanks! Our young veterans have nearly double the unemployment rate of others. We wish them well at the job fair!”

Woodcock Washburn managed all of this, as well as sending 10 boxes of books and a very generous monetary donation to Operation Homefront in PA, NJ, and Delaware.

I will never crack a lawyer joke again.

This isn’t the first time I’ve been moved to tears by book groups who decided to make packages for our troops. Please know that our soldiers and their families are equally amazed and grateful for these acts of generosity.

A lovely Pasadena book club sending packages to deployed soldiers

Some of my husband’s favorite deployment stories are those that center around the random boxes of gifts that rolled in on a Humvee—enough books from Hilton Head South Carolina (thank you Beth Evans!) to help start a University Library in the Maysan Province of Iraq, 50 care packages that included feather pillows from a country club in North Carolina (thank you Lynne Sneed and Ann Goldman!) for soldiers who had been resting their weary heads on rolled up t-shirts night after night, and countless other exemplary acts during his three deployments. Like our wounded in Walter Reed, your generosity, from boxed-up hand-wipes and Twizzlers to Crayola-ed cards from First Graders, lets our soldiers know that they are not forgotten.

Soldiers in Iraq opening up Christmas care packages.

More gifts from home.

Donated beanie babies handed out at girls' school, Iraq.

Please remember all of our troops currently fighting in Afghanistan– I bet quite a few of them would love to hear from folks at home.

More info about the Walter Reed job fair and how your company can help our Vets:
Walter reed job fair

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A Visit to Walter Reed

March 29th, 2012 — 8:57am

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.

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 perry@hooksbookevents.com.

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.

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