Fridays in the Pentagon

By Robert Bateman

I wrote the following essay two years ago. Quite a few have probably seen this already. It was posted originally on MSNBC.com. It was later republished by a friend of mine, Joe Galloway, in his column for the McClatchy chain of newspapers. I offer it here again today for two simple reasons: It is a story that matters, and it is happening again right now, this very instant, not far away:

It is 110 yards from the "E" ring to the "A" ring of the Pentagon. This section of the Pentagon is newly renovated; the floors shine, the hallway is broad, and the lighting is bright. At this instant the entire length of the corridor is packed with officers, a few sergeants and some civilians, all crammed tightly three and four deep against the walls. There are thousands here.

This hallway, more than any other, is the `Army' hallway. The G3 offices line one side, G2 the other, G8 is around the corner. All Army. Moderate conversations flow in a low buzz. Friends who may not have seen each other for a few weeks, or a few years, spot each other, cross the way and renew.

Everyone shifts to ensure an open path remains down the center. The air conditioning system was not designed for this press of bodies in this area.

The temperature is rising already. Nobody cares. "10:36 hours: The clapping starts at the E-Ring. That is the outermost of the five rings of the Pentagon and it is closest to the entrance to the building. This clapping is low, sustained, hearty. It is applause with a deep emotion behind it as it moves forward in a wave down the length of the hallway.

A steady rolling wave of sound it is, moving at the pace of the soldier in the wheelchair who marks the forward edge with his presence. He is the first. He is missing the greater part of one leg, and some of his wounds are still suppurating. By his age I expect that he is a private, or perhaps a private first class.

Captains, majors, lieutenant colonels and colonels meet his gaze and nod as they applaud, soldier to soldier. Three years ago when I described one of these events, those lining the hallways were somewhat different. The applause a little wilder, perhaps in private guilt for not having shared in the burden... yet.

Now almost everyone lining the hallway is, like the man in the wheelchair, also a combat veteran. This steadies the applause, but I think deepens the sentiment. We have all been there now. The soldier's chair is pushed by, I believe, a full colonel.

Behind him, and stretching the length from Rings E to A, come more of his peers, each private, corporal, or sergeant assisted as need be by a field grade officer.

11:00 hours: Twenty-four minutes of steady applause. My hands hurt, and I laugh to myself at how stupid that sounds in my own head. My hands hurt. Please! Shut up and clap. For twenty-four minutes, soldier after soldier has come down this hallway - 20, 25, 30. Fifty-three legs come with them, and perhaps only 52 hands or arms, but down this hall came 30 solid hearts.

They pass down this corridor of officers and applause, and then meet for a private lunch, at which they are the guests of honor, hosted by the generals. Some are wheeled along. Some insist upon getting out of their chairs, to march as best they can with their chin held up, down this hallway, through this most unique audience. Some are catching handshakes and smiling like a politician at a Fourth of July parade. More than a couple of them seem amazed and are smiling shyly.

There are families with them as well: the 18-year-old war-bride pushing her 19-year-old husband's wheelchair and not quite understanding why her husband is so affected by this, the boy she grew up with, now a man, who had never shed a tear is crying; the older immigrant Latino parents who have, perhaps more than their wounded mid-20s son, an appreciation for the emotion given on their son's behalf. No man in that hallway, walking or clapping, is ashamed by the silent tears on more than a few cheeks. An Airborne Ranger wipes his eyes only to better see. A couple of the officers in this crowd have themselves been a part of this parade in the past.

These are our men, broken in body they may be, but they are our brothers, and we welcome them home. This parade has gone on, once every month, all year long, for more than four years.

September 2008 Addendum: To whomever took the original version of this essay and then added his own two lines of political pablum, as though I written them ("Did you know that? No? That's because the Media hasn't told you!"), try to restrain yourself this time, OK?

By washingtonpost.com |  September 19, 2008; 12:05 PM ET
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LTC Bateman,

Thanks for reposting this. I guess I can't help but ask the hard question that follows - what happens to these soldiers when the clapping stops?

That is a very hard question that no one within the Army seems to what to ask. The answers would be too painful admit.

I say this because of the personal connection I have with this - the treatment of an NCO I served with in the 2-14 Infantry at Ft. Drum. SGT Joel Gomez.

SGT Gomez (Ret.) is a quadriplegic right now and confined for life to a bed in Wheaton, IL. Like one of the young men described in your essay, Joel is the son of Latino immigrants with limited English proficiency. I remember inprocessing Joel as a young Private - fresh from Infantry OSUT at Ft. Benning. A sharp, talented, funny guy who was destined for great things.

After his tragic injuries in Iraq with the 1 ID, Joel too was feted as a "hero" at Walter Reed and at a number of official Army-sponsored events in-and-around DC where he was put on display like a prop. A testament of "duty" and "sacrifice" for a nation asked to sacrifice nothing.

Following his discharge, Joel nearly died from the neglectful care he received in both VA and private facilities. The last I heard, he's had 7 or so near death experiences since his tragic injury in March of 2004.

I'm not trying to rain on ANYONE's parade here or question the motivation or sincerity of those that attend these events. I even inadvertantly participated in one myself en route to the Pentagon's clothing sales store one Friday

I can't put my finger on it, but something bothers me about the high level of gratitude the Army showers on recovering soldiers prior to their discharge. Afterwards, it's someone elses problem (e.g. the VA). There's an endless parade of new wounded to cheer while the kids from OIF I, II and III drift off invisibly to their forever-changed families and communities.

This is the problem I have with the whole messaging that surrounds the human toll of OIF. "Wounded Warrior" is the new term - crafted by Schedule C political appointees in Rumsfeld's OSD-Public Affairs. The term doesn't quite capture the permanence, serious and secerity of the now-discarded term it replaced: disabled veteran.

With this messaging, the use of wounded servicemembers to "sell" a war to a skepical public, what are we doing to prepare these grievously injured kids, their 19 year old war brides and broken-hearted parents for life after the clapping stops?

Posted by: IRR Soldier ... | September 19, 2008 1:07 PM

What IRR Soldier said. I was present during one of these events, and yes, it's very moving to see these disabled and injured soldiers going through the Pentagon. They certainly deserve our respect and thanks, and I don't think there is a single individual in uniform who doubts that. However... one might think, oh, hey, surely these guys are being taken care of in the long term because we gave them a little parade here and made them feel good. Then you see what the Bush administration has done to the VA programs and how the DOD administers its medical care in Walter Reed and other Army hospitals. So how does this one-day, good feeling translate into something that really matters, Bob?

Posted by: Jason | September 23, 2008 9:08 AM

It's kind of hard to sound a negative note WRT such a feel-good, "motherhood" post. But I will, for the same reasons as the preceding posters.

If I were one of these kids, while grateful at what I know is a heartful expression from these officers, I'd be wondering when my time in the sights of the indifferent and sometimes hostile bureaucracy was going to come. And, unfortunately, that time has seemed to come for all of these unlucky souls. From Walter Reed to the inability to fully man the much balleyhooed "Wounded Warrior" unit, to the shortfalls of the VA, it's hard to be impressed with how a "grateful" nation and its Army have treated these soldiers. We have enough money to bail out Wall Street plutocrats, but we don't seem to have enough to take care of our broken youth. Shame on the Army, shame on this administration, shame on us all.

We should also ensure we note that DoD has actually relieved the Army of making disability percentage determinations on its wounded soldiers. This was because the Army proved to be so strict in evaluating disabilities that wounded soldiers were being graded at something like 50% less disability (meaning significantly less income for life) than members of other services with similar disabilities.

Parades through the Pentagon are great, but they don't mean much when the green machine actively works to penalize you for daring to get damaged in combat. When we talk about the Army taking care of its own, instead of just the feel-good stuff, we need to put everything on the table.

Posted by: Publius | September 23, 2008 4:13 PM

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