A weekend I spent with my old friend Barbara several years ago always comes back to me when military hardware, men and women at war, the aftermath of these wars, troubles my mind. Barbara was working for a nonprofit group that, at the time, provided art and theater for ill and injured people. She invited me to accompany her to Washington to pick up a busload of injured veterans from Walter Read Army Medical Center and travel with them by bus to New York City for a tourist weekend as she and the organization’s small staff were the organizers of this event. Re-reading my notes from then, deleting last names for privacy’s sake, here’s how the weekend went:
It was the morning of the monthly Purple Heart ceremony at Walter Read Army Medical Center outside Washington D.C. – the day after fourteen soldiers died when a Blackhawk Helicopter went down over Basra in Iraq. Two who died had been friends with several of the twenty soldiers who gathered outside the brick Amputee and Brain Trauma Unit on the overcast morning of Friday, August 24th for the organization’s sponsored cultural weekend in New York. The bad news ate at those who knew the dead and those who did not.
These men and women had all been seriously wounded in either Iraq or Afghanistan and were in various stages of rehabilitation. Some of the amputees had already been fitted with prostheses, others had not. When a large Greyhound bus with a leaping, greyhound dog decorating its side, pulled up to the building, the group lined up and boarded while the driver loaded wheelchairs and luggage. A few of the wounded had brought their wives and small children. Several mother’s and siblings, and four physical therapists had been invited as well.
When not dozing, passengers looked out at the passing scenery or spoke quietly on cell phones or to each other. There was more disquieting talk about the downed helicopter during the three hour drive from Maryland to Manhattan. In the front of the bus, a good natured, wide-eyed infant named Amaya sat on her father’s lap In the next seat, Amaya’s mother, Samantha. The father, Sgt. Dan A., had recently been fitted with a prosthetic leg. Like most of the passengers on the bus, the A.’s had never before visited New York.
When asked where he was from, Dan replied in a friendly way, “I’m from Michigan, but we’re based in Hawaii. When I’m adjusted to my new leg, I’m hoping to be transitioned back to Hawaii.”
Then, leaning down to kiss Amaya on her hairless head, he added, “I was injured in November 1st. Amaya was born on March 6th. I’d wanted a boy … but now I know Amaya and … I’m fine.”
Five-and-a-half month old Amaya had on a flowered cotton pinafore decorated with lavender lace that was new. After kissing her downy scalp, Dan smiled, “She may be almost bald, but we washed her hair for the trip anyway.”
Barbara walked up and down the aisle giving out information. When she told the A’s where they would be staying, Dan exclaimed, “The Waldorf Astoria! Wow!”
By midday the bus was fast approaching the Lincoln Tunnel on the NJ Turnpike. Sgt. Confesor M., a career Army man, had been glued to his window. As the highway veered to the right, he shouted out, “Listen up. Look right.”
Heads turned as the iconic slate-gray skyline of New York City came into view. A few hundred yards from the tunnel, Sergeant Lisa G., NYPD, was waiting for the bus in a black and white police car. Wanting to give the hero’s a police escort into the city, she turned on her flashing red lights, and led the bus through the tunnel.
The bus and the police car parked beside the stately World Yacht on the Hudson River. All in white, the yacht’s captain and crew lined up at the gangway to personally greet and board each visitor. Once the yacht was moving, the passengers seated themselves at tables set with linen napkins, good silver, crystal glass. Between glimpses of the city and the river, serious attention was paid to the menu. Whether to order filet mignon or seared crusted salmon became the only pressing problem of the day.
As if the city itself were welcoming them, the murky marine layer burned off revealing a crystalline, azure sky. Guests wandered out onto the decks between courses to gravely look at lower Manhattan where the twin towers once stood. Followed by looing gulls, the boat veered away from the skyscrapers glinting in the sun toward the Statue of Liberty.
The yacht cut its engine at the base of the Statue of Liberty. Everyone gathered outside on the deck. People in wheelchairs as well as those standing on prosthetic legs held onto the varnished wooden railings while they snapped photos or simply gaped in awe. Someone in the crowd observed, “It’s bigger than I ever imagined … way more awesome.”
When the boat turned back toward the city, its passengers were sated by the good food, the warmth of the late summer sun, and what they had just seen. Two retrofitted busses were waiting at the dock. One took baggage and people to the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, the other went to the Hilton Hotel. Fortunately there were a few hours to rest, to recoup, because – as it turned out – the schedule that went from Friday night through Sunday afternoon was so full, there was little time to catch one’s breath and the activities planned were so compelling almost no one was willing to forfeit any one of them.
Everything had been donated by the organization’s generous benefactors. The guests were taken to top Broadway shows: “Mamma Mia,” “Les Miserables,” “Chicago,” “Chorus Line” and “The Color Purple” where a backstage visit to meet Fantasia, the star, had been arranged. There was a guided tour of the Museum of Modern Art to see the Serra show and highlights of the permanent collection, an evening visit to the Museum of the City of New York concluded with a buffet and a concert by The Ebony Hillbillies.
There was also a private visit to the observation deck on the 70th floor of Rockefeller Center, a sightseeing tour of the city, a picnic at the Brooklyn Heights Promenade catered by Barney Greengrass Deli also pastries from Balthazar’s in SoHo, lunch at the Rock Center Café, American breakfast at the Hilton, a grand breakfast buffet at the Waldorf.
On Sunday afternoon the group assembled in the heart of Broadway’s glitter and neon for their final meal at Ruby Foo’s. Afterwards, the return trip to Walter Reed. Round tables had been reserved and roped off. Soft drinks were ordered and brought. With the drinks came platters piled with various appetite-whetting dim sum – dumplings, pot stickers, spring rolls, bowls of edamame.
SPC. Natasha McK., from Ohio, spoke of how surprised she was by the warmth of New Yorkers usually thought of so cold and in a hurry: “Everywhere we went, if there was a policeman, they stopped and asked us, ‘Are you all right?’ When I went into the NBA store the salesperson looked down and said, ‘I didn’t know you were a soldier until I saw the missing leg. I hope you don’t mind me mentioning it.’ Then she hugged me.”
“Did you mind?” I asked.
She planned to return to New York in November to compete in the New York Marathon Achilles Group and had just ordered a modified hand cycle wheelchair. She had been with the group at “The Color Purple”. “It was the first time I ever went to the theater. At the end, the whole theater was sniffling. Even me and I’m not a sniffler. It was great.”
Nicole D., a physical therapist, had also seen the “Color Purple”: “Live theater is so different. You get a chance to feed off the emotions of people sitting next to you. We were all in tears. Going backstage afterwards felt important, privileged to meet the cast and stand on the stage with them.”
PFC Roland V., from Alabama, having a great deal of trouble adjusting to his prosthetic arm and hand and the heavy medication he needed to take, sat beside his mother, Jean. They were staying at the Waldorf. Jean had enjoyed just walking through the lobby: “It was so elegant. We saw women in long gowns, jewelry shops. The breakfast buffet was great. Waiters went out of their way to make sure Roland got what he needed. Everyone here has been helpful, pleasant. Even people walking on the street. People stop because they realize these are wounded soldiers.”
“Yeah,” Roland added, “People were really nice. I had a good time.”
Jean continued, “This is so different from the soldier’s daily activity. It’s so healing. I did not hear a single person say anything derogatory about the war. We didn’t go to the theater though. Roland went to a Met’s game. I went to St. Patrick’s. Then we met up and went shopping. Don’t laugh but Roland’s shrapnel set off the security alarm at T. J. Max.”
Platters of sashimi and sushi appeared. SSG Ramon M., from Los Angeles, extolled: “I learned more during the tour than I learned the entire time I was in High School.”
Judith, his wife, clarified: “Ramon and I loved the boat ride best. So moving to see the real Statue of Liberty up close. So peaceful.”
In their free time Ramon and Judith had shopped for gifts for their four children and had gone to Ground Zero to pay tribute to those who had died on September 11th. The highlight for SPC Saul B. was the Museum of Modern Art: “The museum opened my eyes to art more than ever before. I’d been to New York but never had the chance to see art before.”
His mother Janet D. added: “Your organization really catered to us families. They made everything work perfectly.”
Empty plates were removed, more food appeared – chicken-pineapple fried rice with roasted cashews, scallion pancakes, sesame dipping sauce, teriyaki chicken, stir-fried vegetables, seared steak and more. No one thought they could eat one more bite but when chocolate layer cake, apple crisp, peanut butter banana tarts, real New York cheesecake were brought, no one could resist.
Busses were double parked waiting. Sated passengers and staff straggled out of Ruby Foo’s, began saying goodbye to each other. Some clutched shopping bags, others carried souvenirs. Theater matinee’s had just ended and the streets were jammed with passing tourists in high spirits. Slowly the buses filled.
Their work done, staffers headed off in different directions. I had stayed with little Amaya at the hotel on Saturday afternoon so that Dan and Samantha could go to the theater. Awash with emotion, crazy about little Amaya, wondering what would happen to all of them, I started to walk west. I was about to cross the street when SGT Dan A., unvanquished by his still undisciplined prosthetic leg, caught up with me.
“We wanted you to have this. We could tell how much you cared for Amaya. Thank you.”
He had color in his cheeks, was wearing a white shirt, beige trousers, summer shoes, had thrust an envelope into my hand. He kissed me on the cheek, I kissed him back, then he turned and hurried into the tourist crowd. Inside the envelope: A photo of Amaya taken on the World Yacht. Her merry blue eyes looked into the camera. Her grin revealed two tiny lower front teeth. Her first. Of course, I still have it.
Shortly after that weekend, Obama ended the Iraq war as promised. It might have signaled the end to other involvements … but … this was not the case, as we well know.
This week’s news tells me we’re sending more military hardware to Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, as well as Poland, Romania, Hungary, and perhaps Belarus … though we already have a military presence in 75 different country.
I carry an American passport, am one of the we. Because of this my soul carries a Nansen passport, .