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Heroes, Families Welcomed to 'Road to Recovery' Conference

By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service

ORLANDO, Fla., Dec. 9, 2004 – The Coalition to Salute America's Heroes' Road to Recovery Tribute and Conference kicked off here with a reception Dec. 8 to open the weekend's activities.

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The Coalition to Salute America's Heroes: 1st Annual Road to Recovery Tribute and Conference began with a welcome reception at the Disney Coronado Springs Resort in Orlando, Fla., on Dec. 8. Guests enjoyed a buffet dinner and a variety of entertainment that appealed to both kids and kids at heart. Photo by Samantha L. Quigley
  

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Coalition co-founders Roger Chapin and Douglas Plank greeted the guests of honor and their families at the Coronado Springs Resort Convention Center. After a brief accounting of the business aspect of the conference, the vets and their families were turned loose to enjoy a buffet dinner and a plethora of entertainment.

Disney characters greeted the guests of honor, posed for pictures and danced with the children and adults alike. They also graciously signed autographs for the children.

The fun didn't stop there, though. There was face painting, balloon and caricature artists, strolling entertainers and a DJ spinning tunes. There were even two very tall Uncle Sam look-alikes who mesmerized the kids with their ability to remain upright while walking on stilts.

Originally scheduled to conclude after a couple of hours, the party was still going strong at 9 p.m., three hours after it started. But as much fun as the planners mapped out for the wounded veterans and their families, the conference's aims are serious.

Army Sgt. Rolando Perez, who left intelligence work to become a heavy-equipment transporter driver, after hearing the founders' description of the planned events, said the conference will be very beneficial for the veterans it aims to help.

Perez, of Edinburg, Texas, has been back in the states for about a year after having been deployed to Iraq. While in Iraq, he was wounded two separate times, once by an improvised explosive device and the other time by a rocket-propelled grenade.

After the first incident on July 20, 2003, he was sent to Germany, patched up and sent back to Iraq, he said. The wounds from the Oct. 10, 2003, RPG attack earned him a trip home. It took about eight months of surgery and therapy to mend the injuries, he said.

Despite his injuries, Perez said that having worked in law enforcement in civilian life, he's able to see both sides of the picture and have a particular perspective on what's happening in Iraq.

"We need to be there. Period," said Perez, who is here with his wife and three children.

Though Army Staff Sgt. Brad Smelley won't benefit from much of the conference material right away -- as long as he is still on active duty, the Department of Veterans Affairs benefits won't apply -- he knows it could be very helpful for him in the future.

With the 427th Field Artillery based in Baumholder, Germany, Smelley was wounded when a car bomb exploded in Baghdad on April 28. His left arm bears the scars caused by flying shrapnel. But that is secondary to the damage to his eyes.

The explosion blinded Smelley. Five surgeries at Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, have given him 20/20 corrected vision in his left eye. He is awaiting a cornea replacement in the right eye, in which his vision is substantially less even with glasses.

Smelley, who is here with his wife and three boys, said he's just grateful to have any vision, considering where he started. He's still waiting to see if he'll be cleared to return to active duty. That decision depends on the outcome of the cornea surgery.

Today's sessions begin with a motivational speech and conclude with a Gala Gratitude Tribute to Veterans, including a country music concert by Toby Keith and LeeAnn Womack.

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Related Sites:
Coalition to Salute America's Heroes

Related Articles:
Wounded Troops Hit Road to Recovery at Disney World


Click photo for screen-resolution imageJames Perez, 7, gets a kiss from Minnie Mouse at the Coalition to Salute America's Heroes: 1st Annual Road to Recovery Tribute and Conference welcome reception at the Disney Coronado Springs Resort in Orlando, Fla., on Dec. 8. His sisters Alyssa, 8, and Hailey, 4, joined him in the picture. The children attended the reception with their parents, Army Sgt. Rolando Perez and his wife, Hilda. Photo by Samantha L. Quigley  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageMolly Frei, 3, smiles as she poses for a picture with Minnie Mouse at the Coalition to Salute America's Heroes: 1st Annual Road to Recovery Tribute and Conference welcome reception at the Disney Coronado Springs Resort in Orlando, Fla., on Dec. 8. She is the daughter of Marine Jason Frei. Frei was injured outside Nasiriyah, Iraq, on March 22, 2003, just three days into Operation Iraqi Freedom. He lost the lower portion of his right arm. Photo by Samantha L. Quigley  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageMickey and Anita Williams take their turn to pose for a photo with Mickey Mouse. The Williams family, from Wichita, Kan., attended the Coalition to Salute America's Heroes: 1st Annual Road to Recovery Tribute and Conference welcome reception at the Disney Coronado Springs Resort in Orlando, Fla., on Dec. 8. He is an Army Reserve sergeant 1st class. The body armor and Kevlar the troops wear to stop shrapnel and bullets caused injuries to his neck and back. He has been declared fit for duty and will likely rejoin his unit in February or March. Photo by Samantha L. Quigley  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageChase Smelley, 8, demonstrates his juggling abilities with the help of a Disney entertainer at the Coalition to Salute America's Heroes: 1st Annual Road to Recovery Tribute and Conference welcome reception at the Disney Coronado Springs Resort in Orlando, Fla., on Dec. 8. Chase is the son of Brad Smelley, who was injured by a car bomb in Baghdad on April 28. Photo by Samantha L. Quigley  
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