- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 27, 2004

Special Report

Paralyzed from the waist down, Army Staff Sgt. Eugene Simpson Jr. couldn’t reach the front door of his parents’ house in Dale City, Va., when he returned from Iraq in May.

Inside, he couldn’t get into his bedroom or the bathroom because his wheelchair couldn’t fit through the doors. He couldn’t take a shower because his wheelchair was too big for the stall.

“We never really sat and thought about it,” said Sgt. Simpson, 28, who was injured in a roadside bombing outside of Tikrit in April. “Then when I got here, I thought, ‘How am I going to get into the house, and how am I going to get through these doors?’ ”

His concerns — and prayers — were answered by a group of local residents and businesses who made his parents’ home and yard wheelchair-accessible. Local builders will begin construction on a new house for Sgt. Simpson, his wife and four young sons.

Sgt. Simpson’s story is just one example of the ways that a network of local residents, business owners, churches and charitable groups have been opening their hearts, homes and wallets to help rehabilitate members of the armed services who are recovering from injuries in the war against global terrorism.

As of Nov. 6, 318 troops from Virginia, Maryland and the District have been wounded in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Some residents are donating food and toiletries to group homes like the Fisher House in Northwest, where disabled troops and their families stay for free as they undergo treatment at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

Others help out like the owners of Fran O’Brien’s Stadium Steakhouse at the Capital Hilton in Northwest, which serves free steak dinners on Friday nights to patients at Walter Reed.

Army Sgt. Rufus Brumfield, 26, of McComb, Miss. said the dinners are a bright spot in his weeks of physical-therapy treatments for a neck injury that he suffered during a riot drill in Germany.

“They make you feel that all the sweat, the hard work and the pain, that people recognize that,” he said.

The community’s generosity has been a great support system for the wounded troops.

“The way I see it the community is giving back to the soldiers,” said Army Spc. Moises Bonilla, who suffered an eye injury in Iraq. “It’s also like a relief medicine.”

Several days after giving an interview to a reporter for The Washington Times, Spc. Bonilla, 26, a native of Connecticut, was expected to return to his duties in Iraq.

A new home

Rosemary Butcher, an administrative assistant from Montclair, Va. never met Sgt. Simpson.

But she made sure that the soldier and his family wouldn’t have to bear the burden of adjusting to a life in a wheelchair by themselves.

Mrs. Butcher, 49, first heard about Sgt. Simpson in her local newspaper. After that, she began visiting him at the Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center in Richmond and sent her daughters to see him when she couldn’t.

“We do things like that,” Mrs. Butcher said. “We read about things, and we just do it.”

Mrs. Butcher, whose husband and father are both retired from the Air Force, said her family connections to the military have endeared her to veterans.

“I’ve always had a special place for them,” she said.

After visiting the family’s two-story home one evening, Mrs. Butcher realized that Sgt. Simpson’s parents, Eugene Sr. and Pearl Simpson, would need help in making their home wheelchair-accessible.

“I thought, ‘Here are these two people who are going to have to carry their son into their house,’ ” she said.

Mrs. Butcher immediately enlisted the help of Prince William County officials and the Manassas-based Project Mend-A-House to make adjustments to the parents’ house. Area Access Inc., a Virginia-based disability-services company, donated a wheelchair lift that Sgt. Simpson can use to reach the main floor.

Other local companies donated bags of cement that volunteers used to build a sidewalk that stretches from the front of the house to the back yard, so Sgt. Simpson can easily make his way to the basement where he spends most of his time.

Volunteers also widened the doors to Sgt. Simpson’s bedroom and bathroom, and a local Home Depot store donated a wheelchair-accessible shower that was installed in the basement.

Sgt. Simpson said the generosity has helped him recover from his injuries.

“That makes it seem like we do have a purpose [in Iraq],” he said. “It makes you feel really good.”

Plans are in the works to build a new wheelchair-accessible home for Sgt. Simpson, his wife and four sons.

Homes for Our Troops, a nonprofit group based in Massachusetts that builds handicapped-accessible homes for disabled veterans, recently paired up with the American Legion post in Woodbridge to host a benefit dance to raise money for the new house. It could not be determined by press time how much money was raised.

Local builders are looking for land where they can build the new house, and local companies have donated building materials. The house will be outfitted with entry paths, ramps, wide doorways, lifts, lower kitchen countertops, modified bathroom facilities and other features to make things accessible for a person in a wheelchair.

Like other injured soldiers, Sgt. Simpson said the community’s support is crucial for his recovery — and his peace of mind.

“I’m healing a lot faster than [doctors] had expected,” he said. “The less stress I have on myself and the more support I have, the stronger I am and the closer I am to building myself back up.”

Road to recovery

For 27 recovering troops and their families, the three Fisher Houses on the Walter Reed campus are home away from home.

It’s where the injured troops can stay for free and don’t have to worry about tending to the everyday things like going grocery shopping or doing laundry. Their only goal is to focus on getting better.

“If you’re going through something traumatic, little things become big things,” said Army Sgt. Devona Bonner, 32, whose husband Sgt. Robert Bonner, 35, is undergoing physical therapy at Walter Reed.

Donations from local church and civic groups, residents and businesses from across the country help fill the Fisher Houses with love and support. They give that extra boost of confidence the troops need to get back on their feet.

Boxes full of nonperishable food, toiletries, paper goods and toys line the walls of the storage room at Fisher House III. The auxiliary of American Legion Post 270, from Vienna, Va. provides most of the food each week.

Peter Anderson, general manager of lodging at Walter Reed, said local Girl Scout troops have donated boxes of cookies and the Washington-area chapter of the United Service Organizations has purchased Giant supermarket gift cards for the families.

“The list goes on and on and on,” he said.

Vivian Wilson, director of the Fisher Houses at Walter Reed, said the generosity has been overwhelming.

“I don’t have to purchase stuff like this,” she said, as she unpacked a donated carton of eggs on a recent Thursday morning.

Ms. Wilson said there are 12 local residents who volunteer at the Fisher Houses, which was established by the Fisher House Foundation Inc. to provide the comforts of home without the cost of a hotel bill for troops and their families.

The volunteers do chores ranging from organizing the bulging storage room to cooking meals for the residents.

“I couldn’t do it without my volunteers,” she said. “I couldn’t run a successful program and the soldiers wouldn’t enjoy the quality of life that they do without my volunteers.”

For the volunteers, it’s all about giving back to those who dedicate their lives to protecting this country.

A retired businessman and World War II veteran, Bob Steinberg, 78, comes to the house every week from Baltimore to take the troops and their families for an afternoon out on the town.

“I come over every Thursday morning and take the families out shopping, and generally, we have lunch, whatever we can do,” said Mr. Steinberg, who’s been volunteering at the Fisher Houses since March.

To Mr. Steinberg, it’s the least he can do for the young troops.

“I’m not looking for any medals,” he said.

Members of the Sunrisers, an adult Sunday school class from the Fairfax United Methodist Church, also come by to visit the troops.

A member of the class has donated his company’s limousine and driver who twice a month takes the families on evening sightseeing trips in the District. Other members have organized bus trips and White House tours for the troops.

Mary Branch, 59, a member of the group, said the relationships she has established at the Fisher House are so meaningful that she and her husband plan to spend Christmas there.

“Our friends had invited us to Williamsburg to have Christmas with them, but the more I thought about it, I thought, ‘We can go to Williamsburg anytime,’ ” said Mrs. Branch, of Fairfax. “Spending Christmas Eve and Christmas Day … I just think that it’s the very best thing that we can do.”

A night out

Every week, Army Spc. Rory Dunn, 22, of Seattle undergoes long hours of physical therapy at Walter Reed.

But on Friday nights, Spc. Dunn isn’t a patient; he’s just one of the guys.

For the past two months, Spc. Dunn has enjoyed a free dinner at Fran O’Brien’s at the Capital Hilton, one of many restaurants and businesses who have reached out to help the injured troops.

For Spc. Dunn, having a place to go to and meeting people are essential to his recovery.

“It’s good to meet people and talk again and make friends,” he said on a recent Friday night. “There [are] a lot of people in the same boat as me.”

Community efforts like those at Fran O’Brien’s are making the transition from the hospital bed to an independent life a little easier for injured soldiers like Spc. Dunn.

Hal Koster and Marty O’Brien, co-owners of Fran O’Brien’s, began hosting these dinners in October 2003 at the suggestion of their friend Jim Mayer, a peer visitor at Walter Reed who lost both of his legs fighting in Vietnam.

“He came to my partner, Marty, and I last year and said, ‘Gosh, I think these guys would heal quicker if they could get out of the hospital for a night,’ and he asked us if we would do that,” Mr. Koster said.

For the first several months, the restaurant picked up the costs to host the dinners. Now, contributions from companies, volunteer groups and donors cover the restaurant’s operation costs on Friday night.

“We got a lot of $20 checks and $10 checks from people,” Mr. Koster said. “We even had one little girl send in $6 to buy a soldier a drink.”

Nearly 70 Walter Reed patients and their families come out to Fran O’Brien’s on Friday nights.

On a recent Friday night, music blared as the restaurant’s guests mingled around the buffet table. Sounds of laughter and clicking cigarette lighters punctuated the conversations.

The room quieted down when Mr. Mayer gave the dinner’s weekly toast.

“To the men and women of our military,” he said, raising his glass. “Especially those who serve in harm’s way in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Since January, Matt Rawding, national services officer for the Disabled American Veterans, has been driving a shuttle bus that carries patients to and from the restaurant. He says the sense of normalcy provided by the weekly dinners is important for the injured troops.

“If there’s a place for them to have a medium between the hospital and society, this is it,” he said.PHOTO2

A happy ending

Two months ago, Lisa McCroskey, 21, of Springfield, Mo. didn’t expect to have a traditional wedding ceremony or even a fancy reception.

At the time, her fiance, Army Spc. Aaron Bugg, 20, was undergoing a series of surgeries to save his left leg from amputation and repair a torn artery in his left arm — injuries he suffered Sept. 29 when an improvised explosive device detonated under his Humvee in Riyad, Iraq.

So a simple ceremony at Spc. Bugg’s bedside at Walter Reed and a get-together in his hospital room afterward would have to suffice.

However, a group of Georgetown merchants wouldn’t have it. The young couple, the merchants said, was going to get married — Washington style.

The merchants donated the wedding cake, flowers, tuxedos, bridal favors and the wedding programs.

The couple, who found each other in eighth grade in Marionville, Mo., tied the knot Nov. 13 at the stone chapel on the grounds of Walter Reed.

“People just band together and say, ‘We’re going to make it a special day,’ ” Mrs. Bugg said a week before the wedding.

The Four Seasons Hotel in Georgetown opened one of its banquet halls where the couple and their guests dined on pasta, chicken and gourmet desserts, all of which were provided by the hotel. The Buggs also stayed for free at the hotel’s Presidential Suite on their wedding night.

Hedi Ben-Abdallah, general manager of the Historic George Town Club on Wisconsin Avenue NW, which provided the wedding cake, said it was the least he could do to thank Spc. Bugg for his service in Iraq.

“It’s nothing,” he said. “We did a cake; it’s nothing compared to what he did.”

Preparations kicked into high gear just days before the nuptials when doctors concluded that Spc. Bugg, of Amarillo, Texas, was well enough to go through a ceremony.

Carolyn Wasylczuk, whose paper-goods store Just Paper & Tea on P Street NW donated bridal favors for the festivities, said it was an honor being part of an effort that made the couple’s wedding day a memorable one.

“It’s wonderful to have all of these people pull together,” Mrs. Wasylczuk said. “It’s just a lot of fun. It sort of sets the tone for the season I think.”

Mrs. Bugg said the community’s donations, and the time and energy spent making the day a reality, were a reflection of how grateful it was for Spc. Bugg’s service to his country.

“They were so kind and loving and just so interested in Aaron,” she said.

Spc. Bugg has since left the hospital but continues to undergo physical and occupational therapy at Walter Reed. That will be his life for at least the next six months.

The young couple is just happy — and thankful — to be together.

“A lot of times,” Mrs. Bugg said, “people don’t get the happy ending that Aaron and I did.”

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