Disabled veteran's mission: to help wounded soldiers and kin

By John Kelly
Thursday, April 15, 2010; B02

Stephen Maguire explained how it works.

"The soldiers will arrive three times a week by air evac from Germany," he said. "Always on Sunday evening, Tuesday evening and Friday evening -- about 5:30ish. They land at Andrews, then the big superbus brings them over here."

"Here" is Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

"It brings them to the front of the hospital, on the second floor, and they come in right through the main lobby. Some are ambulatory, some are on respirators. . . . At the same time all this is going on, Department of Army casualty affairs has contacted the family and has issued them tickets and booked them to come the next day -- not the day the soldier arrives, but the next day. They want the soldier to be kind of settled in."

Wounded soldiers and their families: Steve Maguire's customers.

* * *

Steve always thought he'd make the Army a career. He enlisted in 1966. Armor was what he wanted, but he got infantry.

"I fell in love with infantry at Officer Candidate School," Steve said. "I went to Ranger school, and they kept me on as an instructor. I had the time of my life being a Ranger instructor."

He was sent to Vietnam in early '69, a recon platoon leader for a battalion.

"It's the kind of a job you had to be a Ranger for. . . . There's a couple pictures of me up there," he said, gesturing toward a framed photo of a young man in jungle fatigues hanging on the wall of his office in Walter Reed's main hospital building.

"They catch people's eyes."

* * *

When Steve was named director of the Soldier Family Assistance Center at Walter Reed in June 2007, the place was in chaos, the previous head having left under a cloud. SFAC is the office that administers the money and items that citizens donate. It's also the place soldiers and their families turn to for help.

"All these people who arrive, they're in a certain amount of disarray," Steve said. "Their loved one's just been hurt, they don't know what their future is."

Families must suddenly navigate a thicket of acronyms: CRSC (Combat-Related Special Compensation), PAC (Pay and Allowance Continuation), TSGLI (Traumatic Servicemembers' Group Life Insurance). . . .

The 32 people in Steve's office help. They are counselors, financial and child-care advisers, a lawyer. They work late. They can pay a bill on a Friday night if a wife finds out that her per diem has been inexplicably cut off, and the hotel is threatening to kick her out.

* * *

Steve met his wife after he and a buddy placed an ad in the Eagle, American University's student newspaper, back in 1970. "Young officers desire female companionship," it read. "Call Lieutenant Steve Maguire, Ward Two, Walter Reed, TA9-8700."

"It was a tongue-in-cheek ad, but the results had a very long-lasting effect," he said.

* * *

The SFAC -- pronounced "ess-fack" -- helps soldiers, too. It handles the donations that people give: the shirts, socks, shoes, toiletries, phone cards, DVDs, DVD players, laptops. . . .

"The soldiers here run the gamut," he said. "You've got PFCs, who've been in the Army a year and a half. And you've got lieutenant colonels, who've been in the Army 20 years. . . . One thing is kind of common: They haven't spent a long amount of time inside a hospital."

* * *

Steve first came to Walter Reed in 1969, seven weeks after seeing the last thing he would ever see: his buddy's heel tripping across a piece of monofilament wire in the Mekong Delta.

"It was a booby trap, like what causes a lot of wounds today, what they call IEDs," Steve said.

Concussed, blind and riddled with shrapnel, Steve knew instantly that his Army career was over. He thought he'd lost everything. He held his CAR-15 rifle to his head, futilely pulling his finger against the magazine instead of the trigger, until his men took the gun away.

He recounted that day in his 1992 memoir, "Jungle in Black":

The sounds of the medevac. Nothingness. Movement. Raging pain. Litter clamped inside.

We lifted off and I felt swallowed in a black vortex of annihilistic noise . . . .

He was a patient at Walter Reed for 15 months. He and Susan were married there, by the rose garden. ("She's unusually attractive, and I've never seen her.") He retired from the Army, pulled himself together, went back to school, helped raise six children and has spent decades working in the field of rehabilitation. He has a white cane and a computer that reads his e-mails aloud.

"It's an honor for me to come back here," he told me.

Every Sunday, Tuesday and Friday around 5:30, the buses come.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company