National Leaders Thank Wounded Warriors

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas, Jan. 30, 2007 - How does a nation thank someone whose legs were destroyed by an insurgent's homemade bomb? How do Americans pay tribute to someone whose face melted in the fires of war?

In marking the opening of a new state-of-the-art rehabilitation center and two new Fisher Houses here yesterday, Cabinet secretaries, military leaders, senators, business leaders, and celebrities did their best to express their gratitude to some of the nation's sons and daughters who bear the scars of combat. The VIPs acknowledged both the servicemembers' and their family members' sacrifice.

"All those who have made the ultimate sacrifice and all those recovering from their wounds remind us of the price of freedom," Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England said. "It is a price that is periodically required to be paid in blood, and suffering and courage."

England was one of about 3,000 people gathered here to mark the opening of the Center for the Intrepid, the Army's national rehabilitation center, and two Fisher Houses, where families of the severely wounded stay to be near their loved ones. The $50 million center was built from private funds donated to the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund.

"What you see before you is a monument built by contributions by 600,000 Americans," said Arnold Fisher, chairman of the fund. "This is a monument to not only the men and women and their families who will come here, but a monument to the generosity of our citizens and their love for those who serve."

Both the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund and the Fisher House Foundation are members of the Defense Department's America Supports You program. The program works to highlight ways in which Americans support U.S. troops

The guests, including actress Michelle Pfeiffer, talk show celebrity Rosie O'Donnell, singer-songwriter John Mellencamp and producer David E. Kelley, paid tribute to more than 300 severely wounded men and women. While some troops sat in a row of wheelchairs in front of the stage, others slowly walked beneath crossed swords to silently parade before the applauding audience.

Mellencamp performed two of his hit songs, "Pink Houses" and "Our Country" during the event. The entertainer said he came here because the rehabilitation center is a worthwhile project. "It shows the spirit of what people can do on their own when they want to and when they need to," he told American Forces Press Service.

Marine Gen. Peter Pace, the military's highest-ranking officer, said he objects to the idea that these members of the all-volunteer force "lost" their limbs. "You gave an arm; you gave a leg; you gave your sight as gifts to your nation that we might live in freedom," the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff emphatically told the wounded warriors.

Pace said families members have sacrificed in ways that most people can only imagine. They, too, often need rehabilitation, and that's why the Center for the Intrepid and the Fisher Houses are so important.

"Those of you who are family members of the fallen and of the wounded have served this country as well as anyone who has ever worn the uniform, and we thank you for that," the chairman said. "You pray for us when we're gone, and ... when we're wounded, you're there to put us back together again."

Pace's senior enlisted advisor, Army Command Sgt. Maj. William J. Gainey, later echoed his boss's sentiments. "Families are the most important thing to us soldiers, sailors, Marines, airmen and 'Coasties,'" Gainey said in an interview. "If we have a system that will take care of our families, then we can deal with it, and that's a fact. If we take care of the families, we take care of the troops."

Pace also paid tribute to the military's caregivers. "From the instant any of us is wounded on the battlefield until the time we arrive here," he said, the medical professionals provide "the loving care and compassion that these wounded warriors so deserve."

One of those caregivers, retired Army Sgt. 1st Class Kathy Rasmussen, assistant administrator for the Center for the Intrepid, led the chairman on a brief tour of the $50 million facility. The 24-year veteran from Charles City, Iowa, recently retired from active duty but stayed on as a civilian employee here. "What better way to continue to serve my country," she told American Forces Press Service. "I absolutely love working with the patients."

Army Master Sgt. Daniel Robles, 17-year-Army veteran from Tucson, Ariz., who's now a patient at the Center for the Intrepid, was severely injured about four months after deploying to Iraq. He said hopes to find work at Fort Sam Houston.

"There's a lot of good people here who want to support me in that," he said in an interview. "I think it's going to work out."

During the ceremony, Arizona Sen. John McCain acknowledged the debt the nation owes its combat veterans and their families. "We have incurred a debt to you, and no matter how sincerely and generously we honor our obligations to you, we can never repay in full," McCain said. "What you have done for us we can never do for you. But we're mindful of that distinction and humbled by it.

"Our appreciation for your service demands that we all do what we can ... to help keep this nation a place, an idea worthy of the hardships, dangers and sacrifices you have borne so valiantly for us."

New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton said the country has been well served by those who fight for our freedoms.

"We are blessed to have so many who have given so much," she said. "But in return, we are obligated to ensure in every way we can that they and their families are given the support that they have so richly earned and deserved."

The rehab center will be a place of healing and support, for the wounded warriors who face a challenging road ahead, Clinton said.

"May this center and the staff that serve so nobly here help all who pass through its doors to heal in body and soul, to look forward to a future that is still filled with potential, to live long and productive lives at home and to continue in whatever way you choose to serve this nation that admires, respects and loves you," she said.

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