Wounded Soldiers See the Pentagon In Private Parade
Little-Known Event Is Emotional Salute;
Cpl. Lyon Pays a Visit
WASHINGTON -- Cpl. Kenny Lyon's mother pushed his wheelchair down a narrow Pentagon hallway, crying as she listened to the applause.
By YOCHI J. DREAZEN
March 13, 2008; Page A1
Hundreds of Defense Department employees lined the corridor, cheering for Cpl. Lyon and the other wounded military personnel who walked or rolled past. Some of them patted Cpl. Lyon on the shoulder, while others shook his hand or leaned in to hug his mother, Gigi Windsor.
"I was really humbled by it because I didn't do anything special," says Cpl. Lyon, a 22-year-old Marine who lost a leg in a mortar attack near Fallujah. "I went to Iraq to do a job, and I got injured and actually couldn't do it. So why was I getting honored?"
Cpl. Lyon was taking part in a little-known event called the Wounded Warrior March, which brings military personnel who suffer serious injuries in Iraq or Afghanistan to the Pentagon for a parade unlike any other.
The events, held roughly every six weeks, are notable for their simplicity. No speeches are given, no dignitaries march alongside the veterans and cameras are banned. The parades are closed to the public, except for friends and relatives of the injured soldiers and Marines taking part. Military officials don't tout the program to the press.
It's an example of the ways the military has chosen to honor its own out of public view. The Pentagon has until recently refused to release any photos of the flag-draped caskets of fallen U.S. troops being brought off planes back at home. President Bush doesn't attend military funerals and meets with bereaved family members only in private settings. Journalists embedded with American forces, meanwhile, must sign a contract limiting their use of photos of dead or wounded service personnel.
The parades also show the evolution of military honors for the dead and wounded. In the Vietnam War, soldiers and Marines wrote the names of fallen colleagues on their helmets and uniforms. Today, some wear bracelets engraved with the names and nicknames of colleagues killed in the two war zones, while others have the information tattooed on their arms and chests.
Far from the front lines, the Wounded Warrior events give employees at the Pentagon an opportunity to pay their respects to soldiers and Marines they have never met.
"When these boys came back, they went straight into hospitals, so they missed out on the homecoming ceremonies we all came back to," says Maj. Zachary Miller, an operations officer for the Army. "This is a way of giving that back to them."
They began in 2004 after a chance meeting between a young amputee and an Army general. The soldier told the officer that he would like to visit the Pentagon, and the general said he would try to make it happen.
The proposal made its way to Diane Bodman, the wife of Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman. She volunteers at the Red Cross office at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Ms. Bodman had experience planning and coordinating trips, and offered to take the project on.
The first group of Walter Reed patients visited the Pentagon in the summer of 2004 and the event struck a chord with many of the military personnel and civilians working in the sprawling facility.
"You're just holding back from breaking down," says Maj. Lyndon Marshall, whose office is on the parade route. He says he hasn't missed a single event. "There's pride, and camaraderie, and even a little guilt. You think, 'I've been there. I've done that. And nothing happened to me.'"
Cpl. Lyon's journey began at a small U.S. outpost near Fallujah. He enlisted in the Marines in fall 2003 looking for adventure. His unit deployed to Iraq in August 2004, but the tour was uneventful. In his seven months in al-Qaim, a region near the Syrian border, Cpl. Lyon says he didn't once fire his rifle.
His second tour was different. On May 1, 2006, Cpl. Lyon was sitting outside working on an armored vehicle when he heard a whistling sound.
"I looked at my friend and said, 'Is that incoming?" he recalls. "My ears began ringing and it felt like someone hit me in the back of the head with a frying pan."
Cpl. Lyon was conscious when fellow Marines raced him to a medical facility in Fallujah. Then, he says, everything went black. When he woke up two weeks later, he was lying in a bed at Walter Reed.
Shrapnel from the mortar had destroyed his jaw, knocked out many of his teeth and torn a small hole in his skull. It also damaged nerves in one of his arms so he couldn't raise his wrist or open his fingers. His left leg had to be amputated just above the knee.
When Ms. Windsor first saw her son, she thought there was no way he'd survive. "There was no piece of skin that didn't have a scar or wound," she says.
But military doctors put Cpl. Lyon back together. They rebuilt his jaw and performed plastic surgery to hide the scars on his face. They transferred tendons from elsewhere in his body into his arm. And they gave him a state-of-the-art prosthetic leg. Cpl. Lyon says he underwent more than 50 operations.
Cpl. Lyon learned about the Wounded Warrior program from a Red Cross volunteer. His mother was eager to take part, but Cpl. Lyon wanted to hold off until he was able to walk into the Pentagon under his own power. One evening close to the ceremony he fell out of bed, leaving him unable to use the prosthetic. With his mother coming to Washington from Marion, Md., he decided to take part anyway.
On a cool day last fall, a fleet of buses and vans made the short trip to the Pentagon. Cpl. Lyon and the other wounded veterans gathered in a narrow hallway and waited for their cue. When a military band began playing, they slowly made their way through the crowd.
"It reminded me of that scene in 'The Wizard of Oz' when all of the people step in to say goodbye to Dorothy," Ms. Windsor recalls. "The more you walked, the more people you saw."
After the parade, the military personnel and their families were taken to the spot where a hijacked plane crashed into the building on Sept. 11, 2001, and then to a small dining room for lunch. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, made surprise appearances.
On his way back to Walter Reed, Cpl. Lyon said he spent a lot of time marveling at the number of Pentagon employees organizing and attending the events. It was, he believes, their way of trying to forge a connection to a war that otherwise seemed distant and abstract.
"Some of them make important decisions but never get to see their decisions being carried out," he says. "When they applaud us, it gives them a little bit of closure for what they do every day. It makes things real for them."
Write to Yochi J. Dreazen at email@example.com