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Amended Holiday Wishes

Families Come to Help Wounded Soldiers Recover and Go Home

By Susan Levine
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 23, 2004; Page B01

The tree went up weeks ago, adorned with red, white and blue decorations. Well-wishers keep stopping by with treats. Standard holiday festivities, but at the Fisher House, they tend to be scheduled around physical therapy sessions, doctor's appointments or more rounds of surgery at the hospital down the street.

"What's Daddy getting for Christmas?" Belinda Beatty asked her 2-year-old son, Dustin, as he spun around the tree Tuesday evening, beyond tired after a long day.

Army Sgt. Dale Beatty kisses his 6-month-old son, Lucas, while he recovers at the Fisher House at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. (Michael Williamson -- The Washington Post)

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"Legs!" the little boy answered.

The war in Iraq remains intensely close for the Beattys and a half-dozen military families for whom this two-story colonial on the grounds of Walter Reed Army Medical Center is home over the holidays. Some arrived this month, fresh casualties adjusting to their dramatically changed circumstances. Others have been here much longer as spouses or children recuperate from the horrific damage caused by land mines, rocket-propelled grenades, mortar fire and suicide bombers.

For them, presents and yuletide cheer have taken on different meaning. Though they're inundated with both -- everything from visits by Uncle Sam Santa and the commander in chief to catered dinners -- the gift all really want is to get their soldiers home, even if for just a weekend convalescent leave.

Some do. Most cannot.

They take the disappointment in stride. Surrounded by the other families, who can appreciate the macabre humor of battle amputees, and soon to be joined by other relations coming from points near and far, they still have something to celebrate. Their loved ones are, after all, alive.

"Everything else is just superficial," Beatty said quietly, watching her husband.

On the sofa in the living room, Dale Beatty held the couple's other son, 6-month-old Lucas. It had been quite a day, his first outside of the hospital since the North Carolina Army sergeant was flown back in late November. "It was nice to breathe fresh air," he said. And nice to greet President Bush, who stopped by in part to pin a Purple Heart on the left sleeve of Beatty's T-shirt (which announced "Strong to the Finish.")

And now this, cuddling Lucas in the minutes before he'd be called for more holiday generosity, a special feast being served up for the residents of the four houses where families typically stay without charge while at Walter Reed.

"Nobody plans on being blown up," said Beatty, whose legs, destroyed by an anti-tank land mine in northern Iraq, now end just below the knee. But he has his arms, finally strong enough to move himself to his wheelchair, to tussle with Dustin. It's a trade-off with which the 26-year-old seems at peace. "Just to see my boys again," he said.

In the kitchen, the sliced ham was being laid out and multiple turkeys carved.

Quilla French stood off to the side as people circulated through. She kept an eye on five youngsters, ages 3 to 13, as they filled containers so they could take dinner back to the hospital. Their mother -- her daughter -- has a very long way yet to go.

Army Spec. Rosetta Floyd, a medic out of Fort Hood, was severely injured by a mortar round Aug. 25. "Right eye, left leg," French began, pointing to both to keep the list straight. She's been with her youngest child since Floyd returned stateside. Her grandchildren have been back in Oklahoma, divvied among relatives. They arrived several days ago, with plenty of questions. "Why did they take your toes?" Kivona, 4, pressed her mother.

"We're hoping . . . " French started, interrupting herself to inspect 10-year-old Tyashia's buffet selections. "You didn't put any vegetables in there like you should have," she chided. There was no need to fill in the hoping -- that Floyd soon will be done with surgeries, which recently totaled three in eight days; that her memory will settle; that the new year will see them together at home.

For her daughter and grandchildren, French intends to make the best of the holiday at Walter Reed. "I'm going to try," she said with resolve.

Christmas Eve and Christmas will be quiet at the Fisher House. No dignitaries, no outsiders. "Private time," manager Vivian Wilson has promised the families. Most are young, twentysomethings typically married only a year or two or couples who got engaged just before a deployment. They're still planning weddings, though the future will be considerably different than what they once expected.

"They're kids," said Wilson, who in between running the overall operation makes sure birthdays are remembered and even the smallest needs accommodated. "What it comes down to, it is such a privilege and it is such an honor to give back. . . . They have sacrificed so much."

Wilson's last concern before leaving late Tuesday -- the food finally put away, the dishes done -- was the bassinette for a newcomer. Hannah McDonald and her big brother, Ian, had flown in 24 hours earlier, chaperoned by grandparents from Missouri. It had been nearly a month since they'd seen their mother. As for their father, he'd deployed overseas more than six months ago.

"She saw her daddy for the first time today," Wendi McDonald recounted, smiling. Balanced on a hip, the bright-eyed pink bundle named Hannah smiled, too. She had instantly hooked Army Pfc. Evan McDonald, according to Mom.

"In 16 years," he told her, "you're going to be giving me a little trouble with the boys."

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