I was contacted a few months ago by MaryAnn who is an American executive working in Munich. She's a civilian with no real military experience. She read about the great work of Willie Aumfkolk and Soldiers' Angels and wanted to help. All I did was get her to contact them.
Munich is a long way from Landstuhl, but MaryAnn took a day off to help. She visited our wounded at Landstuhl Military Hospital last Wednesday. Here's her experience:
We arrived at Gate 3 of the Landstuhl Military Base (near Ramstein AFB) at 9.30am yesterday and it took us about 30 minutes to get signed in, have our cars searched, etc.. Willie Aufmkolk from SA, her husband Rudi, her friend Irene and her husband Manfred (all Germans from near Frankfurt) were there with 2 cars filled with stuff and I was there with mine, also packed full.
Once we got in, I realized how HUGE the base is - like a whole self-contained community. All the buildings and the grounds were immaculate. We started at the Fisher House, which is privately funded by the Fisher Foundation. Every US military hospital around the world has a Fisher House where the familes of the wounded can stay to be near their loved ones. There are 2 of them at Landstuhl, which has the largest military hospital outside the US. There are currently 31 family members staying at the 2 Houses. A singing group called the Skylarks, comprised of officers´ wives put on a short Christmas music program for the families, which we also attended.
Afterwards, Kathy Gregory, the manager of Fisher House, took us over to the hospital where we were met by SPC (Specialist) Wahid who helped us load the backpacks onto a large cart and then escorted us to the wards. The hospital is one of the nicest I´ve seen, very large, modern, patient rooms with flat-screen TVs on flexible "arms" at each bed, etc. The only strange thing compared to civilian hospitals was the fact that all the doctors and nurses wear green army fatigues and army boots :-)
Fortunately, we were not invited to visit any of the seriously wounded patients (which I was worried about - I do not think it is appropriate). We left their things at the nurses stations. I did, however, personally go into the rooms of about 20 guys on one ward with a nurse and we distributed the backpacks together. They all had leg injuries, except for one or two with arm injuries. They couldn´t quite figure out what was going on and why some strange civilian was suddenly standing in their room asking how they were doing and if they wanted a backpack. Most didn´t know what to say! Obviously, they were subdued due to being post-surgery but also because they are "decompressing", which is adjusting to coming directly from "downrange", as they call the war zone.
The nurses say that it takes a while to sink in but that the staff notice afterwards how much things like this do for the soldiers´ morale. In any case, everyone - the patients, nurses, doctors, chaplains, mental health specialists and other staff kept thanking us and we kept saying, no, no, no, we´re here to thank YOU.
I was in one room giving a guy a backpack when his roommate came back into the room on his crutches. He was very gingerly sitting himself back down on his bed, kind of grimacing in pain. The nurse asked, "do you have pain?", and he barely manages to say, "no". I looked at the nurse and said, "I don´t know about you, but that didn´t sound very convincing to me!" and we all laughed.
Because there aren´t many visitors, the hallways are very quiet. At one point we accosted a lone soldier in the hallway who was out for a walk on his crutches. You have to imagine the big group: 5 of us from Solders´ Angels, Kathy from Fisher House, SPC Wahid with the huge cart of backpacks, etc. swarming around this poor guy. Then Willie wanted a picture of him with some of us and I groaned and said to him, "oh, MAN - as if you haven´t gone through enough and now THIS!" It was so funny.
In another hallway a small group of officers came towards us and it was obvious there was a "VIP" among them. He was a Marine in full uniform, around 60 years old who was missing his right arm. He is a Lt. Colonel based in Hawaii who came to visit the wounded, especially the amputees, which is a wonderful gesture.
After the hospital visit we drove about 10 minutes away from the Landstuhl Base to the Kleber Barracks where the so-called walking wounded are (currently about 150, 15 or so of them women). SSG (Staff Sergeant) Groom proudly showed us around the barracks, explained how they do everything, how they look after the troops and how many improvements they have made in the last year. The barracks looked older than the buildings at Landstuhl and had apparently not been in recent use before OIF (Operation Iraqi Freedom). He showed us a storage room with $1.5m worth of uniforms that a visiting general had helped cut some red tape to get. When new guys come in, they are issued a complete new uniform and the seamstress sews their name tape onto it within an hour. It helps them not to feel "lost" after the shock of being wounded, being seperated from their unit, transport, in a strange place, etc. The barracks have multiple common rooms with PCs, TVs, big screen with DVD, etc. There are telephones that the soldiers can sign out for 15 minutes at a time (but as often as they want) and call anywhere in the world for free. There was a living room filled with baked goods from officers wives and other well-wishers.
We starting pounding nails into a wooden strip that ran along both sides of the hallway at about eye level to hang the Christmas stockings on. The stockings are part of a Solders´ Angels operation to make and send every OIF deployed soldier a Christmas stocking. In total, the Operation provided over 100,000 stockings, and we had 20 boxes of them sent from the US to distribute at Kleber. The ones I saw were from EVERYWHERE - a High School in Louisville, a church in Michigan, people in Florida, etc. - all individually made and with letters and cards in addition to candy, personal hygiene items and the like. One of the soldeirs with a cast on his hand came out of his room and asked if he could help, so we gave him a hammer and some nails... I just couldn´t watch because I kept thinking he would hurt his other hand! I told him, "Soldier, you know if you hurt that other hand, you´re screwed", and he turned to me and said, "Yes, ma´am. I´ll be careful". A woman soldier came out and we gave her a stocking and explained where they came from. She couldn´t believe it and thanked us over and over and kept saying what a wonderful thing it was. We again said, no, no, no, we are here to thank you - we´re all sitting home doing NOTHING.
I have to tell you that the first thing the soldiers pulled out of every stocking and backpack were the LETTERS and CARDS. The candy, etc. went almost unnoticed but the letters were torn open and read immediately. We went into the TV room where a bunch of guys were watching a movie and handed out stockings and 2 minutes later I peeked in and every single one of them had an opened letter in his hands.
Willie had been sent a small box from SA that was full of additional letters. You could tell that people had written like 10 or 20 and sent them in. One pack had "To an American Hero" on each envelope. We put at lot of them into the stockings so they each had 2 letters, and gave the rest to SSG Ferrar to hand out to new guys in a week or two. SSG Ferrar again explained that the guys are often very low-key because of the "decompression" thing, but that the thoughts and wishes from back home make a HUGE difference in morale. He also thanked each one of us individually in a very heartfelt way which of course embarrassed us all again for about the 100th time that day.
I am, however, not embarrassed to say I felt very honored to have met all the soldiers, and every single one of the staff of Landstuhl and Kleber, and I was also very proud of everyone back home that contributed to this effort and others like it.
Thank you, MaryAnn, Willie, Rudi, Irene and Manfred, for taking care of our troops far from home. You have my respect, admiration, and gratitude.
You can help support MaryAnn and others taking care of our wounded at SoldiersAngels.
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