For Battle-Scarred, Airborne Backup
Soldiers' Angels, There to Lend (or Hold) a Hand

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.

One day in late June, just after first light, he stepped onto a small bridge just outside a village. A crude bomb made from a mortar round, hidden behind a Jersey barrier, went off. It blew him up into the air and off the bridge. He landed in a sewage canal.

Ninety-six hours later, after he'd been stabilized at a military hospital in Germany, this lanky stranger -- Bair -- was sitting beside him at Walter Reed.

"I had no idea who she was," he remembers now.

Surgical sponges had been sewn into the gaps where the flesh was missing from his left biceps, his left forearm. The outside part of his left hand was gone, as was most of his right thumb. His right arm had been slit open by shrapnel. Both legs, too.

After Ziegenfuss arrived at Walter Reed, it took Carren and Alice Ziegenfuss one more day to make arrangements for the kids and to get to Washington. For Alice, this was sadly familiar terrain. Her husband, William, had served in Vietnam and gotten cancer -- from Agent Orange, she believes. She came here with him many times. He died five years ago.

Carren, packing their two children -- Creighton, 5, and Adelle, 2 -- off to her sister's house in Montana, was relieved when she heard that Soldiers' Angels had latched onto Chuck.

"It made such a difference, knowing one of them was with him," she says. "I mean, we'd never met Kathleen, but she'd sat up with him till midnight, then was back with him in the morning until we got here. I knew my husband wasn't alone."

Days passed, then weeks. The drama of the battlefield faded into the long slog of rehab.

Bair, coming down after work or on weekends, brought the two women everything from toothbrushes to sandwiches. She got Soldiers' Angels to arrange for domestic help for Carren's sister while Chuck and Carren's kids were staying with her. When Ziegenfuss emerged from the fog of pain medication, Soldiers' Angels got him a computer -- and, because of his heavily bandaged left hand, where he lost a pinky, added voice-activated software. He got back online with his popular blog, Tcoverride.blogspot.com. It's gotten 90,000 hits in the past three months.

Now they're all sitting in a room at Mologne House, the outpatient center that's part of the Walter Reed complex. Everyone is headed home next week. Ziegenfuss is wearing walking shorts and a knit shirt. The clothing covers up many of his injuries. The skin over the wounds is purple, bright in some spots and dark in others. He, Carren, Alice and Bair sit around a table talking. They're going for pizza in a minute.

"I think he's had nine operations," says Alice.

"Does that include the ear?" he asks.

"Ten," she corrects herself.

"They took a piece of my head and put it in my ear," he says, explaining surgery to repair a perforated eardrum.

Ziegenfuss is in good spirits, if slightly apprehensive about his future. What does a captain with nine fingers do?

"Get back in line," he says, citing what he most wants to do -- return to Iraq and his command.

For Bair, the relationship is winding down. There are other soldiers she looks in on, other wounds to mend. None of it will change the world. Hand-holding and sandwiches and toothbrushes rarely do.

They just make it a little more bearable, these acts of kindness from strangers in a time of war, these things that bind us.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company