While there was a lot going on at the annual gala of the Armed Forces Foundation--and by a lot I mean the usual dignitaries with lofty titles and generals with stripes and stars--it was the wounded warriors who stood out among all the guests at the Reagan Building. Many were in uniform, some in wheelchairs, or on crutches, or with canes, or with no apparent sign of their injuries. At the beginning of the evening they were given a standing ovation.
"Tonight is about coming home," said Brian Kilmeade of Fox News, who was the emcee of a program that included the National Anthem sung by Margo Rey; a brief bit of comedy from her husband, Ron White; a special tribute by Fort Belvoir Elementary School students who have at least one parent at war; award presentations; and a speech by the organization's heart and soul, Foundation president Patricia Driscoll, who said the evening was a tribute to the soldiers who have died at war or returned home wounded. According to the AFF, 47,712 service members have been wounded in battle in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, so far.
"Can you hire them?" Kilmeade implored the audience. "Is there anything better you can do for someone who has served your country?"
Mark Little is an example of a wounded veteran who has benefited from the assistance and programs of the AFF. Four years ago in Iraq, he had both his legs blown off below the knee. Today he is out of the military and working for the Defense Department, is married, and has two prosthetic legs he says he sometimes forgets aren't real. He said his future wife didn't know he had prosthetics until after a couple of dates. He has been snowboarding and plays on an ice hockey team made up of other wounded warriors.
Little credits his survival and recovery to his "optimistic" spirit, but also to the remarkably efficient and skilled medical treatment he received on the battlefield, in Germany, and at Walter Reed Army Hospital, where he did his rehabilitation. All along the way, he said, Patricia Driscoll was there for him with emotional support. He said he didn't need money from the group, because he was employed, but AFF routinely gives financial support to service families in need.
One of the features of the evening was pairs of desert combat boots. Guests were able to preorder them with their tickets or buy them at the dinner, and the result was the odd juxtaposition of cocktail dresses and business suits with combat boots, serving as a gesture of solidarity.
The guests included Navy admiral James A. Winefield, vice chair of the joint chiefs of staff; Army chief of staff General Raymond T. Odierno; General Philip M. Breedlove of the Air Force; Army general John Mulholland; the new Italian ambassador, Claudio Bisogniero; House representatives Darrell Issa, Bill Young, Duncan Hunter Jr., Adam Kinzinger, Allen West, and Joe Wilson; NASCAR drivers Kurt Busch and Jeff Burton; and from the Food Network, Anne Burrell, Alex Guarnaschelli, Spike Mendelsohn, Claire Robinson, Jennifer Williams, and Mark Pastore.