5 Years of Reflection, Salutes For Sacrifices 'in Harm's Way'

By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 19, 2008

The elegant dining room fell silent as the toastmaster called for a salute. Young men and women paused at their tables, some missing limbs and eyes, some in wheelchairs, some with canes and scars. A pair of crutches leaned against the wall beside a portrait of Abraham Lincoln.

In the low light, glasses were raised: To the American military, the host said quietly, "particularly those who served in harm's way." The room erupted in a cheer.

It was a timeless moment Friday night at Washington's Capitol Hill Club and might have been a scene from a century ago -- a salute to battered survivors of war.

Yet with the Iraq conflict still simmering and the one in Afghanistan heating up, the weekly Friday night dinner for patients at Walter Reed Army Medical Center was also an anniversary and reunion.

It has been five years since the charitable dinners began as a way to get wounded soldiers, sailors and Marines out of their rooms at Walter Reed and the National Naval Medical Center for an evening in the city, said Hal Koster, head of the Aleethia Foundation, which funds the events.

To mark the anniversary, Koster invited recovered patients who had been at the earlier dinners -- "graduates," they called themselves -- to come back and meet some of the more recently wounded.

The wounded "never forget what happened to them," said Koster, a Vietnam veteran who originally held the dinners at his former restaurant, Fran O'Brien's Stadium Steak House. "They relish the opportunity to talk to some of the newly injured guys. . . . It helps the old guys, and it helps the new guys. . . . They're brothers."

It was easy to pick out the newly wounded from the older veterans Friday. Many of the former looked pale and appeared weary as the night went on. One, Staff Sgt. Andre Cilliers, 24, who had been shot in the side in Afghanistan in August, had a portable wound-draining machine with him.

And there was a swagger about the older veterans as they embraced and joked and posed for group pictures.

Also attending were Secretary of the Army Pete Geren, former deputy defense secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz and "Doonesbury" cartoonist Garry Trudeau, who has championed the wounded in his comic strip.

The event began at 6:30 in the stately club, two blocks south of the Capitol, as the "old-timers" arrived with spouses and relatives.

Garth Stewart, 26, who lost part of his left leg to a land mine in Iraq and spent several weeks at Walter Reed in 2003, was there from Columbia University, where he is a senior, studying history.

Stewart, who left the Army in 2004, said the war in Iraq has already migrated to the realm of video games, as have past wars. "Maybe it's good that it recedes," he said. "I hope that it does."

He said he had been determined to get out of the hospital as fast as possible, to prove to himself that he was the same man he was before. "What I always say . . . is get out of here, and go home," he said. "Get out in the real world. You'll heal faster."

Joe Bowser, 48, who lost his lower right leg in a rocket attack in 2004 in Balad, Iraq, spent more than two years recovering at Walter Reed. He now works for the secretary of the Army and takes Pentagon brass for visits to the hospital.

When patients see the Army officials, "all they see is a suit," he said. "When I go in there and I tell them, 'Hey, I'm the class of '04. I spent two and a half years here. I'm a below-the-knee amputee,' their eyes get wide, and they start listening."

Also there was Andrew Kinard, 25, of Spartanburg, S.C., a Marine lieutenant and congressional fellow who lost both legs to a makeshift bomb in western Iraq two years ago. He said the dinner was "a wonderful opportunity to sort of get a snapshot of where I came from" and where he would be going. He said he had been out of hospital only a few months.

At 6:35, a bus from Walter Reed arrived, and the wounded filed in amid the glare of TV lights.

Cilliers, who grew up in South Africa and was wounded Aug. 9, said he was attending his second dinner.

"This is only the second time I've been out," he said. "It's pretty much been my only opportunity to get out of the hospital so far. . . . I get to go out and sit down somewhere else other than my room."

As he spoke, his left arm was in a sling and a tube ran from his injured side to a portable canister carried by a nurse. "It's a wound-vac, still sucking fluid out of me," he said. "It's one bullet hole that caused a whole lot of damage." He said he has a piece of the bullet in a bottle.

Cilliers said it helps to see other soldiers further along in their recovery. "It gives me some idea of what to expect," he said.

By 10:30, the toasts and speeches were over, and the Walter Reed bus waited outside under a moon obscured by drifting clouds. As one man with a cane and facial scars waited inside for the elevator, he said: "I'm tired, man. I'm going to call it a night."

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