Disabled Military Veterans to Get Memorial of Their Own

By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Nov. 2, 2006 - The nation's capital is awash with military-themed statues and memorials. Yet, there isn't a memorial honoring the sacrifices of America's disabled military veterans.

That's going to change, Lois B. Pope, a noted Florida-based philanthropist, said today at the Ronald Reagan Building and Trade Center here. At a breakfast event, Pope kicked off the start of the "Faces of Freedom" photography exhibit featuring the work of lensman Rick Steele, who in 2005 spent four months in western Iraq embedded with U.S. Marines.

Pope is also co-founder and chairman of the American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial Foundation. The foundation, she noted, has raised half the money needed to build the $65 million marble and glass memorial. It will be located on two acres of land adjacent to the National Mall within view of the U.S. Capitol. Pope said groundbreaking is set for 2008, with completion planned in 2010.

The American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial will honor America's 3 million disabled military veterans living today, Pope said.

"It's a salute to them, to honor their valor, their courage and their sacrifice," she said. "And, it's a way of educating the American people, that war isn't just about bombs and bullets and death and destruction. It's about human beings, like these young men and women here today, who stand up for the highest values inherent in all of us."

Without the efforts of America's military members, "we wouldn't have any of the freedoms that we enjoy today," Pope said.

Also present at the breakfast were retired Army Capt. Leslie Smith, 37, and retired Army Staff Sgt. Christian Bagge, 24, both disabled veterans and spokespeople for the foundation.

Smith was serving on active duty in Bosnia-Herzegovina when she was medically evacuated stateside in March 2002 due to a blood disorder. The condition almost killed the public affairs officer, and part of her left leg had to be amputated. She also permanently lost sight in her left eye. Smith, who's originally from Gettysburg, Pa., is thankful that a memorial is being built to recognize the sacrifices of America's disabled veterans.

"We are going to see this memorial being built from the ground up," Smith said. "And each step that is taken is going to represent more recovery that all of us are going to go through."

Today, Smith runs, skis and kayaks. She has an active role with the U.S. Olympic Committee's Paralympic Military Program, assisting in the development of future programs and with sporting events for wounded warriors.

Bagge, then an infantry sergeant in the Oregon National Guard, was traveling in a convoy south of Kirkuk, Iraq, when an enemy-emplaced roadside bomb detonated near his vehicle on June 3, 2005. He lost both legs due to the explosion and sustained nerve damage in his left arm.

The injured noncommissioned officer was promoted to staff sergeant during a stint on active duty at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, after leaving the Guard. Bagge was medically retired from the Army at the end of July.

The memorial will become an important symbol of healing for disabled veterans, Bagge predicted. "It's about hundreds of thousands of people just like me that left a part of themselves on the other side of the world, or were (otherwise) wounded," he said. "It's important to honor their sacrifice."

Steve D. Tough, president of Health Net Federal Services, LLC, said his company is a co-sponsor of the disabled veterans memorial project. Health Net does work for the military's TRICARE health care program, he noted.

"When we had an opportunity to support the development of this memorial, and certainly the photographs by Mr. Steele, we felt a good connection to this because we can relate to the (military) beneficiary community," Tough said. "It brings us back home to those we serve."

Photographer Steele's camera's lens captured the comradeship among young U.S. Marines pulling dangerous duty in Iraq. His 100-photo "Faces of Freedom: Scenes of Courage, Sacrifice and Daily Life in Iraq" exhibit depicts his experiences in Iraq from June to September in 2005. The exhibit will run at the Reagan Building until April 2007.

"You have a 19-year-old (Marine) talking about how he doesn't have to worry about turning his back, because he knows somebody is there to watch out for him," Steele, 32, recalled.

Steele also related his "moments of clarity" after surviving enemy attacks. "You start thinking of everything that could have happened," he noted.

The photographer said he was very impressed with the professionalism displayed by the Marines he saw in Iraq. "Marines are really proud to be Marines. They certainly believe in the mission they have out there.

"They have a job to do, and they do it," Steele said.
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