A group started by members of Columbia Country Club helps injured service members and their families get a dose of normalcy.
Jake Keeslar was swatting golf balls, strong and straight, but after each swing he wobbled slightly as he regained his balance. Three years ago, Keeslar, an Army sergeant, was on patrol in Iraq when a homemade bomb exploded under his vehicle and shredded his legs. He’s still learning to use his prosthetic limbs, shiny metal contraptions that poke out beneath his shorts, but he jokes that they’ve improved his golf game.
“I play better now, I lost my legs and I lost my slice,” cracks Keeslar, a native of Big Bear, Calif. “I’m not trying to muscle the ball every time. I hit it easier and let the club do the work.”
The slice-free sergeant was playing in a tournament sponsored by the Yellow Ribbon Fund, a Bethesda-based organization that provides assistance to wounded service members recovering at National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda and at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., the area’s two military hospitals. Many are amputees, others suffer from brain injuries or post-traumatic stress disorder, and it can take years of intensive therapy to relearn old skills, from walking and thinking to swinging a golf club. Though the outing at the Army Navy Country Club in Arlington, Va., was designed mainly to raise money, just getting out of the hospital was a big deal for the patients.
“Golf is actually good therapy,” says Marine Sgt. Daniel Hernandez, who sustained a severe head injury in Iraq. “It requires us to focus, and we have to re-teach ourselves how to focus.” For Army Sgt. Ramon Padilla, who lost his left arm while manning a forward patrol base near the Syrian border, the day was about more than golf: His wife and four kids got a chance to relax in the club’s pool. Padilla describes the Yellow Ribbon Fund this way: “They really help out a lot; without them, it would be a lot tougher. Guys would feel really cooped up.”
The idea for the fund was first planted in the fall of 2004, when lawyer David Branson, the father of a Marine based in Afghanistan, learned that a number of service personnel at Bethesda Naval had nowhere to go for Thanksgiving. He hosted a holiday lunch at the Columbia Country Club in Chevy Chase, and tapped his pals at the club for a $20,000 donation to the Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund. A story in The Washington Post evoked more contributions and more concern about what was happening to wounded individuals plunked down in suburban Washington, far from their support systems back home.
John Adams, a retired airline pilot from Potomac, and Denis Neill, a Bethesda-based lobbyist, decided to visit Walter Reed and see what the service members needed. The nurse on duty was frantically dealing with a patient’s family that was visiting from out of town. She found them a hotel room, but the military did not cover their expenses. Adams produced his credit card to pay the bill, and three months later the two men formally created the fund. (Columbia Country Club is still the fund’s informal headquarters, and many board members are also members of the club.)
Adams, who spent two years in Vietnam, wanted to shield today’s veterans from the mistreatment that greeted returning service personnel a generation ago. “And that could have easily happened again,” he says, “when you have a war this unpopular.” Moreover, the men realized that they knew almost nothing about these two large institutions that loom over their hometowns. “We drive by Walter Reed and Bethesda Naval and we never go in,” Neill says. “So we decided we would make them part of the community.”
The patients all said the same thing, Neill recalls: “What we heard was, they couldn’t get out of there.” They even had a derisive nickname for themselves: “POWRs,” or “prisoners of Walter Reed,” Neill says. Adds Marie Wood of Chevy Chase, the fund’s communications director: “Our whole philosophy is that we fill in the gaps.” One big gap was transportation, so Adams and Neill convinced friend Jack Fitzgerald, who owns auto dealerships and a rental car company in Rockville, to provide vehicles at sharply reduced rates. As the wife of one wounded soldier put it: “The car has helped us keep four very active kids from going crazy because we are all cooped up in one room at Walter Reed.”
Other contributors filled other gaps. Cab companies subsidized rides. Local builders donated several apartments for larger families. Restaurants hosted a Cinco de Mayo celebration. A pottery store started holding afternoon workshops. Folks donated tickets to sporting events and concerts. Some volunteers just donated time, serving as friends and advisers to young service members trying to piece together their shattered lives. Hernandez lauds Bob Talbot of Chevy Chase, the retired athletic director at Catholic University who heads the fund’s mentoring program. “Mr. Talbot calls me more often than my own father,” Hernandez says.
The fund’s goal is simply to help service members and their families “live a more normal life,” Neill says. “Our purpose was not to pray with them or read them poetry in the hospital; we wanted them out of the hospital.” But one large gap remained: the caregivers, the relatives of the wounded individuals who uprooted their lives to move here but were largely ignored by the military. Some had children, many left jobs and families behind, most were women, and all of them needed a break from their highly stressful routines. So the fund recently started offering a new range of services, from massages and pedicures to a day at the rooftop pool of the Doubletree Hotel in Bethesda, which provides a free swim and a low-cost lunch. One wife said the massages were particularly helpful: “When I’m in a good mood and stress free, I can help my husband with anything and everything he needs help with. We don’t fight about things that don’t matter anymore, and I’m more patient with the baby.”
The fund’s annual budget now tops $1.3 million, and most donations come from local sources like Trish Riviere, a young woman from Washington, D.C., who asked the guests at her birthday party for cash instead of gifts and raised $500. One of the fund’s biggest champions is comedian Stephen Colbert, who was born in Bethesda and moved away when he was 2. But Colbert’s older siblings (he’s the youngest of 11) have strong ties to the area, and his sister, Mary, found out about the fund from Wood, an old friend from Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart in Bethesda. Mary recruited her brother, and over the years he has raised and donated more than $200,000. After Colbert broke his wrist, he had his cast signed by guests on his Comedy Central Show, The Colbert Report, sold the cast on eBay and gave the proceeds to the fund.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan make fewer headlines these days, but the death toll in the two countries is approaching 5,100 Americans, and for every soldier killed in action, another eight or nine are wounded. Bigger bombs are causing more grievous injuries—to limbs, brains, backs—and repeated tours of duty are triggering a sharp spike in cases of post-traumatic stress disorder. So wounded service members still come to Bethesda Naval and Walter Reed. They and their families still need help in living normal lives. They still need cars and cabs, meals and massages, baseball tickets and golf outings. They still need the support of the community that stands just beyond their hospital walls. “This is not a charity to us, it’s a duty,” Neill says. “And we’re giving our friends the opportunity to do their duty as well.”
Steve Roberts’ new book is From Every End of This Earth. This column was suggested by a reader. Send your ideas to Steve at email@example.com.