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.
Marine Lance Cpl. Bazillio Santellane of San Antonio and his wife, Elizabeth, enjoy a few moments together after Thanksgiving dinner.
(Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)
"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. Club member Denis Neill, a former lobbyist, said he is still collecting money and aims to raise $30,000 more by Christmas.