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The Life Recovery Room

Wofford's enthusiasm for life appeared not at all diminished by the loss of more than half his left leg from a Baghdad suicide bomber, or by the severe nerve damage to his right hand, which he used as best he could to assist with that day's lunch.

"You know how long it's been since I had Kool-Aid?" he asked.

Sgt. Tim Gustafson, who was wounded in Iraq, practices cooking and eating with his wife, Janice Gustafson, in a mock apartment dubbed Fort Independence. (Photos Andrea Bruce Woodall -- The Washington Post)

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Head cook usually is Capt. Katie Yancosek, a vivacious occupational therapist who takes as well as she gives with no consideration to rank. She is constantly looking for opportunities for the soldiers to engage in normalcy. At Christmastime, she brought in paper and ribbon and a half-dozen gifts she hadn't finished wrapping. Her helpers seemed to welcome such "real-life stuff," as she described it, though she got kidded that she was putting the military to work for her.

"Everything that was easy before is harder or takes a lot more time," she said. Or a lot more thought. She shows soldiers who are missing hands or arms how to cradle a mixing bowl, and she warns those with lower-limb amputations never to bend over an open oven door. Lose their balance and they risk serious burn.

With nearly a dozen participants and onlookers Wednesday, Yancosek had a full house. The menu was soup, hot dogs, sandwiches and little meatballs doused in maple syrup. Therapy assistant Harvey Naranjo snagged the recipe after tasting it on a cruise ship.

Delicious, Naranjo assured the crowd.

Parked next to the washer, Sgt. 1st Class Denis Viau, 38, balanced a bowl of soup. The Army careerist, from Washington state, had been in a chemically induced coma when he arrived at Walter Reed in December; his legs, shredded by an Iraqi mortar round, were amputated below the knees four days later.

He listened with amusement as Naranjo razzed one of the cooks about his sandwich preferences.

"I want double cheese in mine," Naranjo specified.

Viau couldn't resist. "You ought to learn how to make 'em before you start ordering 'em," he cracked.

Marine 1st Lt. Erasmo Valles, 29, was drafted for meatball duty. He once was adept at his outdoor grill in New Mexico, but that was before an antitank mine nearly destroyed his legs a year ago. His right leg has a metal plate in the foot; the left leg ends with the glint of a stainless steel prosthesis.

Valles moved carefully at the sound of a timer going off, mitt on his left hand, crutch under his right arm. He slowly took a shallow tray out of the oven and turned to put it on the table. Behind him, another soldier gently nudged the oven door closed.

"Hot syrup coming through," someone cautioned.

It was Valles' first time in the apartment kitchen, and it proved a decided success. No meatballs hit the floor. Everyone proclaimed them delicious. And the most satisfied patron was the Marine's year-old son, Lorenzo, the child whose birth he missed while in Iraq.

One by one, Valles fed his son meatballs. Lorenzo kept looking for more, until finally Valles put the little boy on his knee and began to bounce him.

"Aaaaaah," Lorenzo droned happily.

First on Daddy's real knee. Then on his new one.

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