By Yamiche Alcindor
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 17, 2009
For just one day, Pfc. Gilad Afridonidze didn't have to deal with the monotony of doctor visits and medications that have been his reality for a month, a world away from war.
Afridonidze and his father, David Afridonidze, were among more than 50 veterans and as many relatives who joined a boat ride down the Potomac River last weekend hosted by the group Patriot Cruise and Salute.
The veterans who signed up for the cruise are patients at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. They were invited aboard 36 separate boats moored at the marina in Occoquan and taken on a day-long water tour past such attractions as Mount Vernon, Fort Washington and the National Harbor.
"It's really good to get people's minds off of things and go outdoors," Afridonidze said while relaxing under a tree after returning from hours on the water.
Afridonidze has been at Walter Reed for a month after being wounded in Baghdad. He joined the Army soon after graduating from high school in Brooklyn. Despite injuries that have left him temporarily in a wheelchair, Afridonidze said he hopes to recover soon and return to the war zone.
This is the third year that Col. Edward Mason of Alexandria and his wife, Christine, have treated veterans to river cruises. Their Army roots are deep: Edward Mason is a human resources officer for the Army, and Christine Mason is a retired lieutenant general.
The couple formed Patriot Cruise and Salute after Mason returned from a tour in Iraq in 2006. The goal was to show veterans appreciation for their sacrifices by providing an outdoor respite from the hospital.
On Memorial Day in 2007, the Masons invited eight wounded soldiers on a boat ride. After hearing what the Masons had done, other boat owners at the Prince William Yacht Club volunteered to take veterans out on their own boats. The next year, 38 soldiers and family members recruited from Walter Reed went out on 30 boats.
Mason said the simple day in the water required six months of planning by a committee of 20. They had to get approval from Walter Reed, coordinate dozens of volunteers, solicit sponsors, arrange welcome gifts and cater food.
Spec. Ron Frye of Sago, W.Va., signed up for the trip as soon as he heard about it.
"It's always good to not think about the hospital," said Frye, who has been hospitalized for two years. "A day away from the hospital -- that's a good day."
In 2003, while serving in Iraq, Frye suffered injuries that left him unable to walk. Although he enjoyed the trip, he said he hopes he won't be on the cruise next year.
"I want to go home," Frye said.
Staff Sgt. Daniela Terrell of Fort Campbell, Ky., made the trip with her mother, Janet, her daughter, Dezerae, and nephew Durrell.
"Even though I don't like water, I'd do it again," said Terrell, who is being treated at Walter Reed for cancer. "I feel good. It was very exciting."
At the end of the day, with the sun setting, David Afridonidze sat silently, looking at his son and the cast supporting the 21-year-old's left leg. Father and son exchanged few words, but the struggles they continue to endure hung heavily in the air.
"As a parent, I'm just glad he's here," David Afridonidze said.