PAGE THREE Dispatch From . . . Walter Reed

A Valentine's Wedding, With Help From Strangers

Friday, February 15, 2008

In the end, the soldier and his love tied the knot on Valentine's Day in a small church in Gaithersburg -- the soldier reaching up from his wheelchair to wipe the tears streaming down his young bride's cheeks.

For months, they'd dreamed of a Las Vegas wedding Jan. 19, to be followed a year later by a family-and-friends fiesta on a beach in their native Guatemala.

But love must adapt in time of war.

On Dec. 20, near Baghdad, a makeshift bomb ripped off the legs of Army Cpl. Wesley Barrientos of Bakersfield, Calif. The blast fractured his back, shoulders and jaw. Three days later, he lay in intensive care at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, a double amputee at 23.

When Marcela Martinez Ramos, 21, heard the news, she never hesitated, she said, smiling yesterday morning as a hairdresser pinned baby's breath into her shiny black curls. "I didn't feel any different."

In his hospital room a day after she flew to him, she pushed him to settle on Feb. 14 for the wedding. "He forgets dates," Ramos said, in Spanish. "So I said a date that he can't forget."

The pair met in October 2006 when Barrientos, on a brief leave after two tours in Iraq, visited family in Guatemala. "She just blew me away the day we met," said Barrientos, sitting in a wheelchair in the lobby of Mologne House, the recovery home at Walter Reed, the pants of his dress suit tucked around the stubs of his legs. "The next day it was like we knew each other our whole lives."

The pair kept in touch via e-mail and phone. Three months later, Barrientos headed back to propose. Then came his third year-long tour.

They saw each other one last time in July, parting ways after a romantic getaway.

Of the explosion, he said simply: "There were five of us. Someone had to take the hit."

He smiled yesterday as someone tied his silk tie. His best friend, Manny Balcaceres, 23, lifted him into a church-bound van. Moments later, a white limo whisked away Ramos, in lace and tulle.

Crammed into a room at Mologne, which they shared during Barrientos's recovery with his mother and sister, the pair had planned a courthouse wedding -- all they could afford. On Friday, Ramos let slip to a social worker that she could use help getting a wedding dress. The case manager passed on the news to the Yellow Ribbon Fund, a nonprofit group that supports recovering veterans at Walter Reed. The fund sent out an appeal to its 200-plus e-mail list of volunteers.

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