Staring Down Unease at Walter Reed

(By Michael Robinson-chavez -- The Washington Post)
Tuesday, July 4, 2006

Very much of this place we live in -- despite all the hype and hyperbole about being a hub of the universe -- is pretty much the same as a lot of other places. But there are some things about it -- sometimes a job, sometimes a place, sometimes a view of life -- that are close to unique. Almost . . . extreme.

When visiting Mologne House, you try not to stare.

You look away from the young guy wheeling himself in the front door with two stumps where his legs once were.

You walk a few steps behind the fellow toting plastic shopping bags with the hooks of prosthetic arms.

You avert your gaze from the man with the scarred face and blank eye and the chap who's missing half an ear.

While visiting the outpatient residence at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, packed with war wounded, you strive for nonchalance, as if to say, oh, this is all quite normal.

Yet there is an unmistakable pang of relief when an intact human being is encountered.

One wishes not to offend at Mologne House. Do the wounded mind being looked at? If we are too cavalier, do we diminish their sacrifice? Do you say hi?

They seem so silent.

The carpeted lobby, with the Little Tike toys lined up beside the staircase, is mostly quiet except for the occasional squeals of the children of the wounded, who live there along with the tired-looking spouses and parents of the wounded. A row of black wheelchairs is parked out of sight behind the stairs.

The war's injured come and go at Mologne House. Having achieved "optimum hospital improvement," they check out of their cluttered rooms to make way for the next victim of a land mine or makeshift bomb, pushing boxes of belongings past the tulips and pansies out front.

They leave little behind: a mug filled with fast-food condiments, an empty medicine bottle, a rumpled bedsheet with a faded pink stain.

They return to the world as if wise children -- tottering on metal legs, grasping with steel fingers -- through a strange and challenging landscape, with stories some of them don't remember and others can't forget.

From the cocoon of the hospital residence, they pack up their wheelchairs and spare limbs and journey to distant homes, changed, enlightened, aged.

Now, he is old , the British soldier-poet Wilfred Owen wrote during World War I about a recovering triple amputee. He's lost his color very far from here/Poured it down shell-holes till the veins ran dry.

As they leave Mologne House, bound for the TDRL (temporary disability retired list) or maybe the PDRL (permanent disabled retired list) you pray that these old young men and women might be embraced when they get where they are going and honored for what they have given.

And perhaps, for a moment or two, one really ought to stare.

-- Michael E. Ruane

© 2006 The Washington Post Company