Heroes helping heroes

Posted: Dec 31, 2004 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- A few weeks before Christmas, I had the opportunity to once again visit some of America's finest young men and women who were wounded in Operation Iraqi Freedom or Operation Enduring Freedom. These young warriors were recuperating in two of the finest medical institutions in the country -- the National Naval Medical Center and Walter Reed Army Medical Center. It is not the infrastructure, the architectural design or the budget that places these among the best. Like any first-rate institution, it is the people who make them great.

 They are staffed by soldiers, sailors and Marines. Doctors, nurses and administrators -- both military and civilian -- ensure that the patients get the best medical care and are treated with respect. Understanding the healing power of love, they also care for the visiting family members.

 These institutions also attract some of the finest volunteers on the planet.

 They need to be, because their patients are the best and bravest of a new generation of Americans putting their lives on the line for the right to remain free. At this time of year, when we count our blessings, it is appropriate to pay tribute to the men and women -- from the corpsman on the battlefield to the doctor in the operating room -- who keep our troops alive and nurse them back to health.

 Marine Capt. Brad Adams was riding in a Humvee near Fallujah in October when a boy riding a bike approached the vehicle. Hidden in the bike's basket was a bomb. It detonated and littered Adams' body with shrapnel. Adams has now undergone nine surgeries and has been recuperating for a month at the National Naval Medical Center. "The level of treatment we're getting here is outstanding," he said.

 That sentiment is echoed by Cpl. Nicolas Roberts, who was badly injured from a gunshot wound in Ramadi. So far, he has undergone seven surgeries. Of his stay at Bethesda, he says, "I'm getting great care here -- this is the best hospital in the world."

 The site for the National Naval Medical Center was chosen on July 5, 1938, by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who said the spring-fed pond on the land reminded him of the healing pool of Bethesda in John's Gospel. Today, the facility is commanded by Rear Adm. Adam Robinson Jr. and is known as "The President's Hospital," because sitting presidents receive their medical care there. In the past year, 1,200 wounded troops from both Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom have passed through Bethesda's wards for quality care.

 Thanks to the advancements in battlefield medicine and body armor, fully 90 percent of the troops who are wounded in Iraq or Afghanistan survive hits from gunfire or explosives that would have killed soldiers in previous conflicts. The nature of the enemy's explosives, however, is causing some troops to undergo amputations of an arm or a leg. Most of them are sent to Walter Reed to be fitted with prostheses and to rehabilitate.

 Walter Reed has been caring for America's wounded heroes since World War I. It is named in honor of Maj. Walter Reed, who conducted groundbreaking research on yellow fever. His discoveries enabled workers to survive in the tropical climate and complete work on the Panama Canal.

 Not only do the wounded go to Walter Reed, but the hospital has sent more than 200 of its personnel into the field in Afghanistan and Iraq. Today, the medical staff at Walter Reed is perfecting the ability of amputees to return to active duty service.

 That standard of commitment was set by Navy diver Carl Brashear, who while serving on the USS Hoist (ARS-40) in 1966, was injured so severely that his left leg had to be amputated. Brashear refused to give in to demands for his retirement, was fitted with a prosthesis and went on to make history, continue diving and eventually retire with the prestigious titles of master diver and master chief.

 Thanks in large measure to the medical professionals at Walter Reed, such stories are becoming the norm, not the exception.

 Col. Jonathan Jaffin, commander of the Walter Reed Health Care System, said of the soldiers, "We view these patients as world-class athletes, (and) our goal is to restore them to world-class status."

 Major advancements in the field of prosthetics are being made at Walter Reed. "We are receiving some of the first systems available in the world," says Joseph Miller, Walter Reed's chief prosthetist. One of those is the C-Leg system, which houses a computer system in the knee that responds to movement and can make adjustments up to 50 times a second.

 Millions of dollars are being invested to update and expand Walter Reed's Amputee Center to continue to improve the way these soldiers are taught to walk, climb stairs or ride a bike with their new leg.

 We Americans owe a great debt of gratitude to our troops who are fighting to protect us. We also owe a great deal of thanks to the military personnel, medical professionals, doctors, nurses, administrators and volunteers who are caring for our wounded heroes in these two facilities, and all the medical and rehab facilities our wounded heroes visit along their way.