20 May, 2007

Milblog Conference and Valour-IT: Walter Reed

The MilBlog Conference ended Saturday night, but Sunday was largely dedicated to Soldiers' Angels activities. After enjoying a lovely breakfast courtesy of Patti Bader, a group of angels hopped on a bus and headed to Walter Reed.

The occasion was the monthly BBQ put on by SA during which Valour-IT laptop recipients still at Walter Reed assemble for food, fellowship and the distribution of laptops to new recipients who are well into their rehabilitations. It's held in the atrium and garden next to Mologne House. I was very excited because it would only be the second time I'd be able to distribute laptops in-person to wounded still at a medical facility.

But I was also somewhat apprehensive because the last time I'd been with a large number of wounded I'd maintained my composure, but had a powerful reaction to it that affects me to this day. This time was very different; instead of overwhelmed with emotion, I felt an amazing sense of "rightness" sitting among wounded warriors and their families, a startling sense that I was where I was supposed to be.

Though I'd never visited before, it felt like returning home. My father had served at Walter Reed as a Surgical Tech after a tour in Da Nang around the time I was born. He would meet patients at the helo-pad and assist in surgery. But on his own time he would "follow up" on certain patients, particularly amputees. It was amazing for me to stand in that garden and realize how much I was unconsciously following in his footsteps. It's cliche, but it seemed as if I were somehow closing a circle, returning to the place where everything I am today began.

However, I still felt uncomfortable intruding on the wounded in individual conversation. At events like this, I've been afraid of making them feel like a spectacle or as if they are providing me the opportunity to feel good about myself by "ministering" to them. Many of the Angels have the ability to walk right up to a stranger, un-introduced, but not me. So, I spent a lot of time just watching and listening.

I particularly had the chance to observe Carren Ziegenfuss interacting with the wives there. I was so impressed and proud of her as she mentored spouses of the wounded. She showed amazing strength and leadership: in quiet conversations with individual wives she commiserated, offered advice as one who had been there, challenged them to be advocates for their husbands' care, and handed over her business card, telling "strangers" to call her at anytime for any reason.

Fortunately I had met Mr. Sparling at Mologne House on Friday night (his son was visiting his mom, but he gave me an 82nd Airborne pin when he found out who I was), and he became one of the ways I got to talk to a few of the patients. He introduced me on Sunday to a wounded soldier who wanted to know the history of Valour-IT. After telling it, I met the soldier's wife. She was a tiny little thing with a spine of steel. She told me of missing her three children--showing me their pictures on her cell phone--and about how she wanted to be a good mother and about her background. She hadn't seen them for three months, but hastened to add that she knew her husband needed her. At that, she noticed he had walked away as we talked. "Oh, he's wandered off," she said with an affectionate sigh. "I better go find him. He's really improved a lot with that, but he's got TBI and I'm not supposed to let him wander off from me."

She waded into the sea of people and I was reminded of that awful WaPo article that treated the mixture of luxury and recovery at Mologne House as somehow grotesque rather than triumphal. The ability of her to so casually but affectionately talk of her husband's wounds and life in an out-patient facility in the middle of a top-notch BBQ was somehow "right" and perfectly normal.

Suddenly Mr. Sparling popped up again, "Have you seen Lynette? [SA's Wounded Care director.] When I pointed her out he said, "The general was just here. He was looking for her."

He pointed to two retreating figures outside Mologne House, a very tall white man and a short black woman, "Right there!"

"The general, you said?'"

"Yes! Schoomaker. Run and catch him!"

So I did. I felt like an idiot, but I figured it didn't matter what the general thought of me; I wanted to make sure Lynette and SA had the contact. So I ran down the sidewalk like a maniac. "Sir, General Schoomaker, sir! General Schoomaker, please stop! General, General! Sir, Mr. Sparling sent me to ask you to come back, please!"

He and his companion finally stopped and turned around, obviously wondering who this crazy woman was. I explained and led them back to Mr. Sparling, who introduced Lynette. MG Schoomaker was in a hurry, but was very gracious. As we stood there, I realized that I recognized his companion from news photos--the impressive new CSM of Walter Reed--which finally connected his name in my head: I was standing in front of not only the head of WR, but the Commanding General for the entire NARMC.

At that moment, Lynette introduced me as the "the creator, the force behind Valour-IT, which is distributing its 1000th laptop today." The MG obviously knew about the project, shook my hand and said something complimentary. I tried not to blush and turn shy, responding that there was a huge team of people that made it happen and calling myself the Nag in Chief, which he seemed to appreciate. At one point he reached into his pocket and exchanged a look with the CSM that I didn't understand at the time [see next paragraph], but all recognized he was in a hurry and we collectively cut things short before he and CSM Dixon hurried back down the sidewalk.

About 20 minutes later a tiny black woman suddenly hurried past me in the garden where Lynette, Chuck, Patti and I were gathered for the laptop presentations. It took me a moment to register who it was (the CSM again). She took Lynette's right hand in both of hers and said something barely audible. She then turned to me and did the same thing, saying in a lovely Caribbean accent, "My deepest appreciation for your service to these soldiers," as she closed my fingers around something warm and heavy. I didn't have time to say more than a startled "thank you" before she dashed off. I opened my hand:

I didn't want to miss a moment of the laptop presentation, so after exclamations of surprise I quickly slipped it into my pocket and refocused on Chuck. It was only later that I remembered to inspect and admire it [back view], and realized it was his coin and not hers. Very cool...

Coming Up: Chuck's amazing speech, and photos from the presentations.