THE OTHER WALTER REED
The Hotel Aftermath
Monday, February 19, 2007
The guests of Mologne House have been blown up, shot, crushed and shaken, and now their convalescence takes place among the chandeliers and wingback chairs of the 200-room hotel on the grounds of Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
Oil paintings hang in the lobby of this strange outpost in the war on terrorism, where combat's urgency has been replaced by a trickling fountain in the garden courtyard. The maimed and the newly legless sit in wheelchairs next to a pond, watching goldfish turn lazily through the water.
But the wounded of Mologne House are still soldiers -- Hooah! -- so their lives are ruled by platoon sergeants. Each morning they must rise at dawn for formation, though many are half-snowed on pain meds and sleeping pills.
In Room 323 the alarm goes off at 5 a.m., but Cpl. Dell McLeod slumbers on. His wife, Annette, gets up and fixes him a bowl of instant oatmeal before going over to the massive figure curled in the bed. An Army counselor taught her that a soldier back from war can wake up swinging, so she approaches from behind.
"Dell," Annette says, tapping her husband. "Dell, get in the shower."
"Dell!" she shouts.
Finally, the yawning hulk sits up in bed. "Okay, baby," he says. An American flag T-shirt is stretched over his chest. He reaches for his dog tags, still the devoted soldier of 19 years, though his life as a warrior has become a paradox. One day he's led on stage at a Toby Keith concert with dozens of other wounded Operation Iraqi Freedom troops from Mologne House, and the next he's sitting in a cluttered cubbyhole at Walter Reed, fighting the Army for every penny of his disability.
McLeod, 41, has lived at Mologne House for a year while the Army figures out what to do with him. He worked in textile and steel mills in rural South Carolina before deploying. Now he takes 23 pills a day, prescribed by various doctors at Walter Reed. Crowds frighten him. He is too anxious to drive. When panic strikes, a soldier friend named Oscar takes him to Baskin-Robbins for vanilla ice cream.
"They find ways to soothe each other," Annette says.
Mostly what the soldiers do together is wait: for appointments, evaluations, signatures and lost paperwork to be found. It's like another wife told Annette McLeod: "If Iraq don't kill you, Walter Reed will."
After Iraq, a New Struggle
The conflict in Iraq has hatched a virtual town of desperation and dysfunction, clinging to the pilings of Walter Reed. The wounded are socked away for months and years in random buildings and barracks in and around this military post.
The luckiest stay at Mologne House, a four-story hotel on a grassy slope behind the hospital. Mologne House opened 10 years ago as a short-term lodging facility for military personnel, retirees and their family members. Then came Sept. 11 and five years of sustained warfare. Now, the silver walkers of retired generals convalescing from hip surgery have been replaced by prosthetics propped against Xbox games and Jessica Simpson posters smiling down on brain-rattled grunts.