Friday, June 29, 2007

Michael Sparling spent a recent afternoon helping an injured soldier around Walter Reed Army Medical Center. It was a gesture he has performed many times in the past year and a half since his son also arrived at the hospital to recover from war injuries received in Iraq, but one that may soon be coming to an end.

“When my son leaves, I don’t know if I’ll be able to,” said Mr. Sparling who also volunteers his time, expertise and energy to help other families navigate the paperwork and stress he has faced during his son’s recovery.

His son, Joshua, 25, a paratrooper for the Army’s 82nd Airborne, is receiving medical treatment at the D.C. hospital for severe injuries from a bomb that hit him while he was pursuing insurgents in Iraq.

Thousands of mothers, fathers, wives and husbands have left home at a moment’s notice to be by a soldier’s side since September 11, but many didn’t expect the emotional, financial and bureaucratic struggles of the transition.

“Very few [families] have everything together when they get here, and I want to show them someone cares,” Mr. Sparling said. “When these soldiers are injured, families need to be able to take care of their sons and daughters first.”

Mr. Sparling quit his job as a marketing director and drove more than 550 miles from Port Huron, Mich., to Walter Reed after receiving the call telling him his son was severely wounded.

Walter Reed’s Malone House already has a support group of volunteers, known as Soldiers’ Angels, that works daily with the families. But Lynette Frascella, director of the group’s Wounded Soldiers Program, still tells families to go see Mr. Sparling.

“He takes them under his wing and through the process,” Mrs. Frascella said. “He is very knowledgeable about the workings of the Malone House and the Walter Reed system.”

Walter Reed, off Georgia Avenue Northwest, is a part of the U.S. military’s primary health care system and specializes in surgery and rehabilitation for head, limb and upper-body injuries.

The Army medical center’s Soldier Family Assistance Program assigns an escort to every family, who begins by taking members to the buildings they will need to visit on the 113-acre campus.

Cliff Stanback, one such liaison, was introduced to Mr. Sparling and his son when they came to Walter Reed in November 2005.

Mr. Stanback said he often refers families to Mr. Sparling because he knows all the shortcuts for the paperwork and the staffers who can help families quickly receive what they need.

“He’s on call all of the time,” Mr. Stanback said. “I don’t know how he does it. I’ve called him at 2 or 3 in the morning, and he’s always ready.”

Injured soldier Cpl. Adam Poppenhouse has lived at Walter Reed since December 2005.

He said his wife quit working as a preschool teacher and stopped studying for an undergraduate degree in child development to move her and their 10-month-old daughter to Walter Reed from base housing at Fort Lewis, Wash.

Cpl. Poppenhouse said Mr. Sparling voluntarily took him to a rifle match at the Quantico Marine Corps Base in Virginia and surprised him by arranging for the corporal to receive a rifle as a gift.

“He goes out of his way to meet everybody, see what they need and help them,” Cpl. Poppenhouse said.

Mr. Sparling makes about 15 trips a week to local airports, dropping off and picking up soldiers and their families. Such trips can often cost as much as $70 each.

Mr. Sparling also has formed a foundation called America’s Wounded Hero to support any service member wounded or injured defending the United States.

After soldiers leave Walter Reed, Mr. Sparling also helps them return to civilian or military life.

Among the biggest problems is surviving financially until military benefits start.

Mr. Sparling said the foundation will help service members get necessities that military benefits and Medicare do not cover.

“You can tell the charities that care for the people, and those that are charities to be charities,” Mr. Sparling said.

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