The invitations to the Navy Memorial Foundation’s annual dinner, the Lone Sailor Awards, likely went out weeks ago to the members of the Coast Guard, Navy, Marines, and others related to the nation’s “sea services.” The dinner is a moving and patriotic occasion under normal circumstances—but circumstances were not normal on Wednesday evening at the National Building Museum, just two days after the horrific shooting spree at the Navy Yard, where 13 were killed, including the suspected gunman. The event had nearly 600 guests, a number of them in Navy uniforms, and though it went on as usual, with cocktails, dinner, candlelight, a marching band, and speeches, the memory of Monday hung in the air. A tangible emotional pull coursed through the room as the resplendent United States Marine Drum & Bugle Corps played “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
“We are mindful that at this hour there are countless numbers who grieve the loss of loved ones and colleagues in the terrible events that took place not far from here just two days ago,” said Rear Admiral Mark L. Tidd, the Navy’s chief of chaplains, in the invocation at the beginning of dinner. “As we reflect on the lives of our fallen colleagues, we pray for those who are injured and we ask for comfort for all who mourn, and we know at this hour there are sailors and marines and coast guardsmen, who go in harm’s way, standing the watch, defending our nation. May they each know that a grateful nation stands proudly beside them.”
Tidd was followed on stage by retired Vice Admiral John Totushek, the president and CEO of the Navy Memorial, on Pennsylvania Avenue, where a wreath was laid Tuesday on behalf of the shooting victims. “A tragedy beyond our comprehension was inflicted on our Navy family,” he said, and then asked for a moment of silence.
We talked for a long while with a woman who sat with her service dog beside her. She said her name was Bernadette Beckwell and the dog was Tucker. It was his first gala in such an enormous space as the Building Museum, and she thought he might have been a little intimidated, but to us he looked calm and professional.
Beckwell told us she was a Navy lieutenant in Afghanistan in 2007 and 2008, where she suffered a spinal injury that caused permanent brain damage. She lives alone with the dog and can get around by car, but she has “balance issues.” Sometimes she loses the feeling in her legs and falls. Tucker is there to brace her as she gets up. She can’t tell depth. She also can’t work, though she has taken up golf as a form of therapy. She described herself as “a broken computer that can’t get fixed.”
When Beckwell heard news of the Navy Yard shootings she thought, “Not again.” It brought up memories of Afghanistan and of when a friend was killed. “A guy decided to bring a gun into a building and start shooting Americans because he couldn’t get free gas,” she said.
Beckwell talked about suspected shooter Aaron Alexis and his reported medical history. While not knowing anything about him personally or his case, she shared her view of how mentally disabled military cope with their issues.
“When you go to the VA, no one wants to tell everything,” she said. “In the military you are supposed to be strong, and if you tell them everything that’s going on you are labeled weak. No military person wants to be viewed as a failure. You tell them enough to get some treatment, but it’s not enough treatment.” She said claiming PTSD is, in her opinion, particularly problematic. “No one wants to be labeled [with] PTSD, because you can’t get a job.”
Beckwell said she’s coping with life and with some anger, but feels she has both under control. “My mission was to be an admiral. I had an education degree. I enlisted and worked all the way up and got selected for the officers program.” Since returning from the war, she says, “I went from having everything in life to starting out with absolutely nothing. I lost my job. I lost my husband.” But she has Tucker. They’ve been together two and a half years, since he was a two-month-old puppy. “I was scared to death of dogs,” she said. “His first night home I built a barricade and put him in it.” But now they are together all the time.
Tucker was a star of the evening, in addition to the human stars: the notables being presented with the 2013 Lone Star Sailor awards, including General Motors chairman and CEO Dan Akerson; former Marine commandant General P.X. Kelley; CNN founder and legendary America’s Cup champion Ted Turner, who is a Coast Guard veteran; and Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, who received the Naval Heritage Award.
Turner and his companion, Sally Ranney, hung back from the crowded VIP reception for a while. They sat side by side near the stage on the edge of the still-empty dining room, talking and kissing. Turner said his back hurt, that he had a “bad vertebra.” Sally mentioned that sometimes together they watch The Newsroom, the HBO series whose cast includes Turner’s ex-wife, Jane Fonda. Did he think Fonda, who plays a network owner, was playing him, as some surmise? He wouldn’t say, but he did seem to think she should be a winner in this Sunday’s Emmy Awards.
We asked whether Turner planned to comment on the Navy Yard shootings when he accepted his award. “No,” he said. “I plan to say thank you.”