In a Place of Pain and Recovery, Room to Romp

By Delphine Schrank
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 15, 2007

At Walter Reed Army Medical Center yesterday, the children came out to play.

About a half-dozen youngsters poured onto a rectangle of squishy green turf, hopped onto swings and scrambled over a jungle gym, minutes after a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a new playground. Tucked behind Mologne House, a 199-room hotel for outpatients and their families, it is a burst of primary colors amid the brick-and-concrete solemnity of the center where wounded warriors learn to walk on prosthetic limbs or cope again with the trials of everyday life.

Toddlers to teens can spend months living in Mologne along with their injured parents, but until now they have had few outlets for their stress. About 40 children live there, said General Manager Peter A. Anderson, but many more visit when school is out.

The alternative to the outdoor playground had been a makeshift play area of toys crammed against the stairs in the building lobby.

Another option had been staring at the fish in the pond behind Mologne. "My daughter was actually counting the fish," recalled Staff Sgt. Renee Deville, who has post-traumatic stress disorder and limited arm motion from a mortar attack in Iraq. Yesterday she sat on a sun-drenched wall rimming the playground, watching daughters Janee, 4, and Amani, 9, hard at play.

"The other day, Amani made a comment that really made me cry. She said, 'I don't want you to be a military mom. I want you to be a normal mom.' How do you handle that?" Deville asked.

"Here, children can be children. They can mingle, share stories about what they were doing when their parents were away. That in itself helps," she said.

Back in June, Deville's casual mention of Janee's limited recreational options to Col. Bruce Haselden, the garrison commander, helped set in motion the playground project, Haselden said at yesterday's opening ceremony.

"We're about helping service members and their wives or husbands," said Marie R. Woods, director of communications for the Yellow Ribbon Fund. The nonprofit group supplies patients and relatives at Walter Reed with taxi vouchers, game tickets and hotel rooms. "But the children are often overlooked."

The group -- together with defense contractor BAE Systems; Operation Homefront, a group that provides emergency support to service members and their families; and the Armed Forces Foundation -- raised $125,000. The playground was built in four months.

The effect was immediate, and not just on the children. A few days ago, Anderson said he saw a double amputee in a wheelchair pushing his child on a swing. Designed to accommodate the disabled, the playground has eight games, including a train and train whistle and a "gizmo" panel that someone in a wheelchair can access at ground level, said playground Program Manager Cliff Plummer.

For Tyler, 14, Nathan, 11, Ian, 8, and Rebecca, 6, who for six months shared a single room in Mologne with their parents, Amy and Jeff Bounds, the playground offers a new outlet while Jeff Bounds recovers from traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder and a collar-bone transplant for injuries he sustained in Iraq.

"It was hectic," Tyler said. "There was no place to do homework on the bed" while a sibling watched TV, another surfed the Internet and a third played video games.

Tougher to endure were their father's muscle spasms, nightmares and flashbacks. "Sometimes," Nathan said, "when you'd wake him up, he'd think you were an enemy." And then there was the time he stopped breathing.

"That caused a little bit of stress," Amy Bounds said. "But they couldn't express the tension," and, on the grounds, they had to be careful to respect the peace and quiet of the wounded.

To give them some relief and much-needed exercise, Amy Bounds said, she would stop at a park playground on their way back from school in Maryland. But negotiating the time was difficult, she said, in part because Ian, who suffers from attention-deficit disorder, needed to follow a finely tuned routine or he wouldn't sleep at night.

Yesterday, Ian handed his mother a toy sword and dived for the playground. Inside, Nathan was busy strapping Rebecca into swing to send her sailing.

Sgt. Ramon Padilla, 32, watched as his wife took turns pushing Ramon Jr., 2, and Emily, 3, on the swings. His head bears a red gash from the shrapnel wound in Afghanistan that carved out a piece of his skull, damaged his brain and blew off part of his left arm.

"It's very good therapy, being out here with the kids," he said. "It just brings it back to normal."

But he added, glancing at a plate loaded with hot dogs from the grill: "It's tough to be out here, eating with my family in the sun, when the other guys are still in Afghanistan."

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