As homecomings go, it was one of the more poignant.

They embraced. They shared a laugh and an occasional tear. And they recalled -- some with bitterness, but most with acceptance -- the calamitous event that brought them into the large "family" at the Inova Center for Rehabilitation at Mount Vernon Hospital.

The center celebrated its 10th anniversary yesterday. It was the Washington area's first comprehensive rehabilitation facility for catastrophic injuries when it opened, with 16 beds, in 1983. More than 200 former patients, family members and staff members returned to take part in the four-hour celebration.

"The Brotherhood" is what former White House press secretary James Brady calls the center's graduates, who number in the thousands. Brady became one of them after an assassination attempt on his boss more than a decade ago. "Mount Vernon put us back together," he told Ginny Thornburgh, a director of the National Organization on Disability and featured speaker at yesterday's event on the hospital grounds.

It was a sentiment echoed by dozens of others.

Now with 59 beds, the rehabilitation center provides comprehensive care for people who have suffered head or spinal cord injuries, strokes, orthopedic injuries, multiple sclerosis, amputations, arthritis and other neuromuscular disorders. It is the only such facility in Northern Virginia and the second-largest in the Washington area.

Hospital staff members quote their recruiting theme in describing their jobs: "The tough, joyous work of rebuilding lives." In many cases, these are lives that, as recently as 20 years ago, could not have been saved.

"I am always inspired by these people," said Roger V. Gisolfi, the center's medical director and one of its founders. "I have never gone through a day where I've not seen something I hadn't seen before."

"Yes, there are some very sad stories," said Mary Beth Ireland, who heads the center's head injury and stroke program. "But you start with that person as they are and you go from there. . . . What keeps us going is the achievement."

As achievements go, there is no greater success story at Mount Vernon than that of Brian Rife.

In 1985, when he was 20, the Springfield college student was driving to Ocean City, Md., when he fell asleep at the wheel, sideswiped a light pole and crashed down an embankment.

For six months he drifted in and out of a coma. He spent 394 days at the Mount Vernon rehabilitation center, of which he can remember only the last five months. His medical bills topped $400,000.

Doctors initially weren't sure whether he would live, never mind walk again. He did both. After 3 1/2 years in a wheelchair, he graduated to two canes. About a month ago, he got rid of one of them too. He lived in a group home for about a year but recently had to move back with his parents and younger brothers.

"It's good and bad because it hurts my independence," said Rife, whose hearing, sight and memory remain impaired from the accident. Janet Rife echoed her son's feelings, noting that society has yet to deal with the cost of reintegrating people like Brian into the community.

"There is a lot of money on the front end, for medical needs, but down the road, when it comes to housing and jobs and transportation, it's much more difficult," she said.

Brian Rife has a part-time job at a Fairfax County park. He is a gifted speaker, his mother said, and has given talks at high schools about using seat belts and not drinking. "I tell the students what my life was like before the accident, how I used to play sports -- baseball and wrestling and ski. Then I say I wonder if I'll ever be able to {do} them again. Basically, I'm trying to get them to understand my hurt."

Janet Rife has written a book, titled "Shattered Mind, Broken Dreams," about her family's ordeal. In the book, Brian talks about the 13 months he spent at Mount Vernon.

"I attach love to that time period," he said. "Everyone was there to help me get better."