Washington, D.C., our nation’s capital, is the most beautiful city I have ever seen. It has broad, leafy boulevards.
It has magnificent public buildings that seem to float on pools of light by night. The Jefferson Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, the Capitol, the White House, the Supreme Court — these are just the main items in a virtually endless list of glorious sights. Then there is the Potomac River and its many bridges, a restful sight for sore eyes. And, of course, there are the war memorials — the Vietnam Memorial with its list of names, the Korean War Memorial with its watchfully trudging soldiers in stone, the new World War II Memorial with its encircling columns, and innumerable statues of generals of the Civil War.
Then, of course, there are the fine museums, the best museums in the nation for art, for natural history, for American history, for the Holocaust, for Air and Space. A man or woman could spend a year at the Smithsonian with endless variety and profit to the mind.
But if you want to see the very most spectacular display in our national capital, you should go as I do, many times a year, to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. This immense hospital complex has something that you cannot see even at Arlington National Cemetery: It has a living, breathing collection of the finest, bravest, most magnificent souls on the earth.
At Walter Reed, a great hospital much maligned by the press, you will see the men and women who are fighting America’s wars and coming home without legs, without arms, without intestines, with severe brain injuries, getting surgeries day after day–and still bravely, sometimes smiling, sometimes grim, coming back for more.
I have been visiting WRAMC for about five years now. I come maybe eight times a year, and I always find myself moved, uplifted, touched, humbled. I meet men who have been hit by IEDs and who are missing two limbs, one arm and one leg, and who have the remaining limbs sewn to their abdomens to get blood — who are cracking jokes. I meet men with their guts missing, with every kind of artificial mechanism inside, yet with the glory of human heroism as the mainspring of their lives.
They lie in their beds or they whip up and down the halls in their wheelchairs. Their families are with them, the wives gamely, lovingly attached, the kids looking a bit bewildered, the parents sad but proud.
These young men — and they usually are men but there are women at WRAMC too — suffer more pain in a day, or maybe in a minute, than most of us do in a lifetime. What do they want to do when they get healed? Go back in the Army and help the next group of wounded men and women. Where do they come from? The small towns of America at every point of the compass, the less affluent neighborhoods of big cities, the nation’s territories and islands. There are very few heirs and heiresses.
But this is not the whole magnificence of the place. The caregivers are as heroic, as giving, as sacrificing, as the wounded. Tireless, enthusiastic, deeply committed to each and every patient, these people are the real hero civil servants or military servants of our capital. I often laugh to myself at all of the attention a president gets for his speeches and his press conferences a few miles south at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. I often think of the media attention on members of Congress.
Then I think of how the really indispensable work in Washington is the orderlies emptying the bedpans of the men and women who have given their health and their soundness of body for their country. I get to go to Walter Reed because I am a small caliber “celebrity” and I am believed to cheer up the troopers with my company and my well wishes. As far as I know there are no open-to-the-public tours and that’s a shame. It is by far the most inspiring sight in the capital or anywhere else.
This is where the men and women who have spilled their blood to keep us breathing free are nursed back to health by the finest health care professionals on earth. It is a temple to what is finest in the human spirit.
This article appeared in the Fall 2009 issue of ON PATROL, the magazine of the USO. Reprinted with permission, www.USOonPatrol.org.