In the first days of the Iraq war 11 years ago, Army reservist Jay Briseno was shot in the back of the head at a Baghdad market. The bullet left him blind, brain-damaged, paralyzed from the neck down and unable to communicate, eat or breathe on his own.
He is perhaps the most grievously wounded soldier to survive the war, or any war. On any number of occasions, his parents have been told to prepare themselves for his death.
But on Monday morning, Jay Briseno smiled — broadly and unmistakably. It happened when a quartet of Washington Redskins cheerleaders came to greet him, part of an elaborate and long-deserved gesture of thanks. Country singer Lee Greenwood sang the National Anthem and his own celebrated anthem, “God Bless the USA” (“I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free”). The Redskins’ Darrel Young spoke. And a consortium of local businesses and national charities presented Briseno’s parents with the keys to a new home in Manassas, equipped with the lifts, medical electronics and hospital equipment needed to keep the 31-year-old veteran alive.
“Jay hasn’t taken a real bath for the last 11 years,” his father, Joe Briseno, told the crowd of hundreds of veterans, firefighters, Boy Scouts, schoolchildren and neighbors. “He can now. . . . Although his quality of life was taken away when he was injured, now we’re slowly giving it back.”
The elder Briseno, also a veteran, wept with gratitude. “This,” he said, “is what America is about.”
It is. There was Greenwood, a self-described conservative Christian whose music is standard at Republican political rallies. Speaking, too, was Brig. Gen. Tammy Smith, deputy chief of staff of the Army Reserve and the first openly gay American general. Eighty businesses contributed to the home-building. Meredith Iler, whose charity was one of the leaders of the long effort, said that no question was ever asked about politics or about views of the war that took thousands of American lives. What matters, she told the Briseno family, is “when you walk through that door, it’s a bear hug from America.”
Standing on the newly laid sod in the front yard of the modest home on Classic Springs Drive in Manassas, I savored what in other times was called the “warm courage of national unity.” It was particularly uplifting because of the event I had just left — a “National Security Action Summit” hosted by several conservative groups in a Washington hotel ballroom.
I arrived in time to hear Dinesh D’Souza, the conservative filmmaker who recently pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations, declare that President Obama was “created” by a movement that “turned against America” and is “embittered against America.” D’Souza posited that for somebody who holds Obama’s worldview, “it is not unusual to see the people fighting against America as freedom fighters.”
I stuck around for the next session, in which Allen West, the Republican former congressman from Florida, gave his thoughts on nation-building by the military. “Let us do what we’re supposed to do in the military, which is crush the enemy,” West said. “And you know what? If they don’t want to act right, guess what happens? We show up again and we kick their butt all over again.”
This produced a standing ovation. And I rose to go to Manassas, to see a better side of America.
Jay Briseno’s mouth was open, and his head lolling, when his parents wheeled him out. His wheelchair carried his ventilator, which sent oxygen directly into his throat, and those at the microphone spoke of the trials his parents have suffered over the last decade: leaving their jobs so they could handle his feeding tube and his catheter, and sleeping in shifts on a futon at his side in case one of his 20-odd medical conditions became critical. His mother, Eva, whispered to her son, stroked his shoulder and wiped an occasional tear from her eye.
“I would suggest to you,” Gen. Smith said, “that Jay still serves, [because] he has brought an entire community together.”
Young has a more prosaic version: “We can’t be worrying about the new iPhones and stuff without them putting their lives on the line.”
Three charities — the Quality of Life Foundation, Azalea Charities and Helping a Hero — arranged funding for the nearly $500,000 project, and Greenwood’s singing produced the tears. “God Bless the USA” may be ubiquitous at campaign rallies, but it had a better sound in Jay Briseno’s driveway, where, as Greenwood put it, “there’s no politics” — just a man who “paid a price none of us will ever pay.”