The Messenger of Ward 57

The Messenger of Ward 57

Mary Bochanis knows what life can be like for amputees and their families. That's why she shares her story at Walter Reed.

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Mary Bochanis met her husband, Gus, on the amputee ward at Walter Reed. Photo by Michael Ventura.

A year after her husband died, Mary Bochanis returned to Walter Reed Army Medical Center and the amputee ward where she met Charles “Gus” Bochanis more than 60 years earlier. It was there, in the labyrinthine halls of the hurt and the wounded, that she and Gus found love during World War II.

She joined the Red Cross at the age of 20. And in 2007, at age 82, she was back with the organization and sharing her story with young amputees and their families who were wondering if life could be good again.

She has been there ever since. “I tell these young kids if I can do it, they certainly can.”

Ignoring the arthritis in her legs, Bochanis drives from her home in Bethesda—passing the humble Silver Spring apartment she shared with her husband when they first married—to the Army medical center on Georgia Avenue in Northwest Washington, D.C. Donning a blue vest and her Red Cross volunteer ID badge, she walks the wards for four hours every Tuesday.

In Ward 57, also known as the amputee ward, Bochanis knocks boldly on the door of a private room, not hesitating to enter even without a response. A young double amputee grimaces and, as a nurse cleans one stump, he warns visitors the sight might be gruesome. “You’re not gruesome,” Bochanis tells the soldier. “You’re good looking.”

“Ah, don’t lie to me,” he says.

And in just that fashion she makes soldiers soften, and sometimes even smile, at least for a moment. “Mary plays such an important role,” says Raymond Obas, assistant station manager of the Red Cross at Walter Reed. “She always has a kind word and a hug.”

Her message is simple: Life as an amputee can be good. Gus Bochanis, a first-generation Greek immigrant like Mary, returned from World War II missing one leg. At the time, Mary was knocking on doors for the Red Cross, offering blankets, books and a willing ear. She fell for the dashing Gus—“he had the most wonderful hazel eyes”—and married him in 1946.

Gus died in 2006 at age 82, and his wife wears his watch and his wedding band to this day. “I still can’t get used to him gone,” she says.

As she waits with a young newlywed whose husband is undergoing amputation surgery, Bochanis shares her story. “My mother almost died when I told her I was marrying an amputee,” she says. “Well, we were married for 60 years, and to this day I have to remember: Was it the left leg or the right leg? It just was never an issue.”

Angela Maschek, who is 26 and from Toronto, tells Bochanis she and her husband, Anthony, were married last October. He was shot in Iraq two years earlier, and his leg wasn’t working properly afterward. On their wedding day, he hobbled down the aisle on crutches. He was counting down the days until surgery, hoping to relieve the pain, she says.

Maschek’s parents are in the room, visiting from Toronto. Her mother, Heather O’Neill, begins to cry as Bochanis tells how she and Gus courted at Walter Reed.

She remembers how Gus had to hobble down Georgia Avenue on crutches to get a streetcar to meet her at church. She visited him regularly for two years while he recovered at Walter Reed. His first prosthesis weighed 8 pounds, but he rarely complained. He danced at their wedding and, years later, at their daughter Diane’s wedding—even running after their dog, who had slipped out the garden gate. “At his funeral, there were 500 people,” Bochanis says, “and do you know, some never even knew he had a prosthesis.”

The couple moved from Silver Spring to Bethesda in 1950. Gus worked at the Pentagon as a munitions specialist and became a leader in Washington’s Greek community. Their daughter graduated from Walter Johnson High School. She has a grown son, and is chair of the English department at Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington, Va. Their happy life can seem unattainable for amputees and their families.

When Bochanis meets Army Staff Sgt. Jason Letterman, who is missing both legs and in a wheelchair, she asks how it’s going. He grunts, and Bochanis launches into her buoyant mantra about her husband and her happy life. He asks if her husband’s leg was amputated above or below the knee.

Below, she answers.

“With all due respect, ma’am, we call that a paper cut,” he says.

Bochanis nods, unfazed, and takes a seat next to him. “You are quite right,” she says. “It is much easier below the knee, but that was 60 years ago before the lighter prosthesis of today.”

Letterman is 34 and from Minnesota. He has relocated to Bethesda to recover from a bomb blast during his third tour in Iraq in 2008. “My wife has helped me a lot,” he says. But “as a father, I can’t walk or run or do the things I used to do with my kids. How will I be the same father?”

Bochanis reassures him that his family will love him regardless of the missing limbs.

“Yeah,” he concedes, “you can’t get frustrated, and you can’t feel sorry for yourself.”

Later, Bochanis will return home and sit among the many framed photos of her husband, remembering the soldiers she has met.

“One kid said, ‘Are you flirtin’ with me?’ ” she recalls. “I said, ‘At 85, I think I can.’

“He said, ‘Well, then, would you mind giving me a big hug?’ ”

 

Meredith Carlson Daly is a freelance writer living in Silver Spring. If you’d like to comment on this story, e-mail comments@bethesdamagazine.com.

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