By Carol Morello
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 21, 2006
A journey of pain and loss, beginning with roadside bombs in Iraq and pausing at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, brought seven soldiers to Mount Vernon yesterday in a Purple Heart ceremony filled with reminders of war's sacrifice.
The choice of George Washington's estate for the ceremony was a symbolic return to the medal's birthplace. It was Washington who established the Purple Heart in 1782 during the final months of the Revolutionary War. And it was beside his grave that yesterday's ceremony was held.
The dusty, clamorous war zones of Iraq seemed a distant memory and yet achingly close as the six men and one woman arrived by bus at a lawn dappled by sunlight. All seven soldiers and a four-star general who spoke came dressed in desert camouflage uniforms that contrasted sharply with the expanse of green grass and flowering shrubs. Three soldiers were in wheelchairs, although one, Spec. Sergio Lopez of Bolingbrook, Ill., had a cane, which he used for support as he struggled to his feet to receive his medal.
The presence of those who were absent was noted.
"It's not about you," said Capt. Robert S. Klinger, 38, of Frederick, whose ankle was fractured in a bomb blast in Tikrit a year ago after Iraq's national elections. "I'm thinking about my soldiers. The ones I lost, and the ones who were wounded."
This is the second year that Washington's estate at Mount Vernon has hosted a Purple Heart ceremony for men and women wounded in Iraq. The Purple Heart was the nation's first award for enlisted troops and is the oldest military award given, according to the Defense Department.
Yesterday's recipients are all in the Army -- active duty, National Guard or Reserve. All were wounded by improvised explosive devices, roadside bombs planted by insurgents. IEDs left several with wounds that will alter the remainder of their lives -- the loss of a foot, a leg, a hand or sight in one eye. They are being treated at Walter Reed.
Speakers told them that their sacrifices were for a good cause.
"I cannot take away the physical pain and the sense of loss I know you feel," said Gen. Richard Cody, the Army's vice chief of staff. "But I can assure you your wounds are not in vain. We will win this global war on terror. We will vanquish the enemies who threaten our shores and freedom around the world."
Gordon England, deputy secretary of defense, said the honorees had much in common with the three volunteers from Connecticut regiments who received the first Purple Hearts from Gen. Washington.
"They also volunteered to step forward and defend their country in its hour of need," he said.
Spec. Maxwell D. Ramsey, 36, of Hilton Head Island, S.C., hugged his wife, Ayako, who stood beside his wheelchair, burying his head in her abdomen and shedding a tear as he listened to the speeches. Ramsey was wounded in March when a bomb exploded under a truck in which he was riding near Ramadi. He lost his left leg above the knee and had hoped to be fitted with a prosthesis before the awards ceremony.
"I didn't want to be seated when I received the Purple Heart," said Ramsey, whose wish was not fulfilled.
Lopez was more fortunate. The fractures he sustained in an IED blast in January require him to use a wheelchair, but he was determined to be on his feet, standing at attention, with his mother, wife and children at his side watching him receive the Purple Heart. The location brought the solemnity of history to the occasion, he said.
"I now mean the same as General George Washington's troops meant to him," said Lopez, 23. "It's awesome."
About 200 people filled folding chairs or stood to the side watching the ceremony. Some were relatives of the honored soldiers -- parents and spouses, children and siblings. Others were strangers with a new feeling of fraternity.
"It joins us in one very exclusive club," said Alfred Ortiz of Vienna, who wore one of six Purple Hearts he was awarded over a gruesome 10-month stretch in Korea, his Military Order of the Purple Heart hat and a Purple Heart necktie. "It gives me enormous pride seeing them get it. I know what they had to do to earn it. We all have a common bond for having shed our blood."
Second Lt. Adrian Perez, who lost the sight in one eye in an IED blast at Tal Afar, pondered how things have changed since soldiers such as Ortiz came home from Korea.
"I don't think I deserved this," said Perez, 30, of Washington state. "I was thinking of the guys in the front row in their purple hats, and wondering where their ceremony was."
Klinger, of Frederick, paused to think for a moment of his long journey home.
"I can tell you, you never want to be here," he said after the ceremony.
"Two weeks ago, I saw a photo of a flight evacuation. I remember the experience was grueling. They're the heroes, the ones who helped bring us back here."
When the ceremony ended, the seven soldiers filed past Washington's grave so each could lay one red carnation on the ground.
Groups of tourists who were visiting Mount Vernon for the day stood outside the gates, snapping photographs and explaining to their children the significance of what they were observing.
A woman surrounded by four children was overheard telling them, "Terrorists set bombs, and they blow our men up."