A festive break from the hospital

Luau for Walter Reed patients and their families helps to relieve boredom, raise spirits


The mix of fresh air, faux multicolored leis, miniature surfboards and an occasional green metallic grass skirt might not have been Hawaii, but it was just what Army Spc. Bryant Jacobs needed after being cooped up at Walter Reed Army Medical Center for almost two years.

Jacobs, a 25-year-old from Salt Lake City, has been recovering at the medical center's Mologne House - an outpatient hotel for soldiers and their families - since being injured in a roadside bombing in Iraq on Dec. 3, 2004.

"It's tough," said Jacobs, who broke his right femur, lost half of his left calf, part of his inner right thigh, part of his left index finger and his large intestine.

Yesterday, 40 injured military personnel from Walter Reed and Bethesda Naval Hospital were guests at a luau at the Yingling-Ridley VFW Post 7472 in Ellicott City. The injured soldiers and their families were treated to food, games, prizes and hula dancers, all designed to raise their spirits.

Kathy Ratti, president of Maryland for Our Military - a nonprofit organization that provides services to military personnel and their families, and one of the sponsors of the event - visits Walter Reed regularly. She said it is important that soldiers and their families have diversions similar to the luau.

"There is absolutely nothing for them to do," said the Mount Airy resident, who started the organization last year after a friend's son was deployed to Iraq. "They feel like a caged animal."

Jacobs, who now walks with a cane, said he sometimes goes stir-crazy in his room.

"It's a great facility and everything. But there is nothing like [living in your own] house.

"A lot of us don't have vehicles," said Jacobs, who expects to be released from the medical center in six weeks. "People like Kathy come along and make life easier."

Thomas V. Kimball, state commander of the Department of Maryland Veterans of Foreign Wars, said he wished he had as warm a reception when he came back to the United States after serving in the Vietnam War.

"We want to give them [soldiers] a hero's welcome," said Kimball, who spent much of the day grilling hamburgers and pork loin. "If I can help a veteran and his family, that's what I'm going to do. We want to let them know that we haven't forgotten them."

The interaction between current soldiers and veterans is important, according to Jack Lewis, chief of staff for the Department of Maryland Veterans of Foreign Wars and chairman of the Military Assistance Program.

"It's veterans helping veterans," said Lewis, who also volunteered his time yesterday grilling meat. "It brings their morale up. It gets them away from Walter Reed."

Staff Sgt. Luther Richardson, 41, has been at Walter Reed for the past 13 months, after being injured in a car accident while stationed in Kuwait. Several of his lumbar vertebrae were injured. His back problems have turned into lower leg problems that require frequent therapy, the use of specialized leg braces and a walking cane, he said.

"They originally said I would be here [at Walter Reed] for 90 days, but it's been 13 months later," he said.

Richardson, of St. Francisville, La., said he misses spending time with his wife and four children, who range in age from 7 to 13, but was enjoying the luau.

"This is great," said Richardson, who had just finished a plate of food. "The food was wonderful."

Richardson's daughter Jayla, 12, also came to the luau, and said she noticed the positive effect the party had on her father and the other injured soldiers.

"They are just cooped up in the room," said Jayla, who has spent the past month living with her father in the Mologne House. "It's good for them to get out and have fun. And the food is also good. I know they like that."


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