For Battle-Scarred, Airborne Backup

Capt. Charles Ziegenfuss and Kathleen Bair, a Soldiers' Angels volunteer, at Walter Reed. She sat with the injured Iraq veteran until family arrived.
Capt. Charles Ziegenfuss and Kathleen Bair, a Soldiers' Angels volunteer, at Walter Reed. She sat with the injured Iraq veteran until family arrived. (By Michael Williamson -- The Washington Post)
By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 21, 2005

The captain was airborne somewhere between Germany and Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Northwest Washington, he was badly injured, and she knew almost nothing about him.

Kathleen Bair, a human resources manager for a Baltimore bookbinding company, made child-care arrangements for her two sons, 16 and 9, on that day in late June, canceled her hair appointment and drove the 45 minutes to the hospital.

Capt. Charles Ziegenfuss had arrived. He was on a stretcher in intensive care. An explosion in Iraq had blown him open three days before. Great masses of flesh were missing from his arms, his legs. His face was pockmarked from the blast of shrapnel and grit. They pulled a three-inch nail out of him. She sat beside him for hours. When he could open his eyes, she told him his family was on the way. Then she sat down again, waiting.

Sometimes, that's all the crush of volunteers who have flocked to help the nation's wounded soldiers can do. Sit. Wait. Hold hands.

"It doesn't have to be a lot," says Bair, who is 44, the daughter of a man who served in the Army, and a volunteer for Soldiers' Angels, a California-based nonprofit. "Sometimes it's just holding their hands and when they say, 'It hurts,' you just squeeze and say, 'I know.' "

She knows she plays a small part in what she describes as the nation's war effort. This is fine. You do not have to get involved in red-state blue-state, WMD-or-no-WMD politics to help men and women who risk their lives in combat, she says.

Somewhere out there in the American expanse, beyond the polls and beneath (or above) the Rush Limbaugh vs. Michael Moore radar, there are tens of thousands of men and women and children who do just that. There are the Soldiers' Angels and Any Soldier, the Wounded Warrior Project, the veterans affairs groups, Girls Scouts and Cub Scouts, the devoutly patriotic and, like Bair, just plain people of goodwill who want to help out.

"My dad was in the service, and my sister is in the Navy Band," she says. "But really, I'm not that into the military. I was exchanging an e-mail message with a friend about our dogs and she mentioned the Angels. I thought it sounded like something worthwhile."

There is a solid reserve of support for the troops out there, no matter that support for the war itself seems to be diminishing. Perhaps after the lessons of Vietnam, in which U.S. military personnel were often vilified, today they are instantly dubbed heroes.

"At first, you're almost overwhelmed, all the people who are giving you information, who are wanting to help," says Alice Ziegenfuss, the captain's mother. "There are the volunteers, the army liaisons, the doctors, the nurses. But it winds up being great. They let you focus, let you worry, about your soldier."

"I almost never get a no when I ask for something," says Patti Patton-Bader, who founded Soldiers' Angels in 2003 when her son was shipped out for the war. She has since enlisted more than 40,000 volunteers across the country to do everything from write letters to donate computers, backpacks and body armor to troops in the field. "Companies or individuals. You tell them it's for soldiers, and they'll just do it."

Ziegenfuss, 32, was sent to Iraq in February, leaving his wife, Carren, and their two young children in Fort Riley, Kan. He was commander of Charlie Company, 2nd Battalion, 34th Armor. She had left military service on a disability, a back injury. Both are from Pennsylvania. They've been married eight years.

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