Dutch Ruppersberger's very excellent idea

January 04, 2004|By C. Fraser Smith

REP. C. A. DUTCH Ruppersberger stood outside the Walter Reed Army Medical Center last week for another megadose of celebrity.

He was there for the latest expression of an idea that has vaulted the Maryland congressman way over his freshmen peers -- or perhaps the entire Congress. On the strength of air travel plans for American troops in Iraq and then for the families of wounded soldiers, he's earned press coverage some of his colleagues have worked at for years without success.

The beauty of Mr. Ruppersberger's idea was a perfect convergence of public service and good politics.

On a visit to troops at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, he found a lot of stranded travelers in uniform wondering how they could get to Iowa City or Spokane or Peoria or you name it. The government gets you to BWI, then you're on your own.

But what if Americans turned in frequent flier miles for use by the soldiers? What indeed: Since the idea took off, the flying public and major airlines have put 15,300 tickets in the hands of young soldiers.

At a news conference outside the huge medical complex off Georgia Avenue in Washington, the congressman ran down a list of the plan's virtues: It's not bureaucratic. It doesn't cost anybody anything they're not willing to give up. On the contrary, it gives people a way to be involved in an effort that requires so much sacrifice.

A further beauty: The congressman's own constituents don't benefit directly from his work. They can get from BWI to Lutherville or Towson or Dundalk. So Mr. Ruppersberger could do good without a shred of political self-interest.

"This is about the United States of America," he said. "This is about the troops. It's about men and women who are putting their lives on the line for our freedom and liberty."

And the idea is catching on. At the news conference, he said the big beer maker Anheuser-Busch has donated 630 tickets to families trying to reach the bedside of wounded sons and daughters.

And there was at least one more virtue, a side benefit that seemed profound: sobering attention to the reality of war. Two women from Iowa City, Iowa, on hand to explain the therapeutic value of family in the healing process, told stories that stripped away the insulating, abstract nature of war.

Jo Sissel's son, Aaron, was killed in an ambush near the Syrian border. His boyhood friend, Joe Gottshalk, was gravely wounded in the same attack. Joe is mending at Walter Reed, mourning his friend, facing more surgery and in need of the comfort that only a mother can give.

Aaron, 22, and Joe, 24, had been buddies back home in Iowa City. Like many others in Iraq, they were National Guardsmen, not career soldiers. They were in the same truck in late November, moving supplies, when the ambush occurred. Aaron was fatally wounded. Joe was hit in the head. The bullet tore through his neck and face, exiting below his left eye.

Jo Sissel had come to Washington with Joe Gottshalk's mother, Alice Rogers. Ms. Sissel had lost her son, but his friend Joe needed her.

"They both needed to see each other," Ms. Rogers said. Two American families close in peace, merged by war. In their stories, words such as casualty, wounded and ambushed achieve a brutal, heartbreaking clarity.

Asked how she felt about the U.S. involvement in Iraq, Ms. Rogers said, "I'm not sure. I just have mixed feelings. I think we all should come home. Before more get killed. There's been a lot of killing, which I'm totally against."

But her son asked to go back.

"He believed in his job. He loved his job. It's what he loved doing," she said.

Aaron Sissel's mother said the immediate wave of support from neighbors in Iowa City had not permitted time to reflect deeply on her loss. She has wondered, though, if life hadn't given her a warning. She's a nurse at the Veterans Administration Hospital in the Iowa City area.

"In recent months, I had talks with a lot of the Vietnam vets. I think a lot of that was to prepare me for what was coming," she said. She may get some reimbursement for her travel expenses, but she says she's not a priority. "There are soldiers who have families that need to get out here [to Walter Reed]," Ms. Sissel said. "There's a lot of people that there's no way they'd ever be able to come up with the money."

So Mr. Ruppersberger's idea gave more than a ride home. It offered a moment for considering the costs of war and the nation's values: problem-solving know-how, generosity, courage and "the last full measure of devotion."

C. Fraser Smith is news director for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays.

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