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Veteran ‘Screaming Eagles’ Reach Out to Wounded Warriors

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Dec. 20, 2010 – Army Pfc. Charles “C.J.” Stewart isn’t feeling forgotten this holiday as he recuperates from his combat wounds here at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. He’ll be surrounded by his family, a nurturing medical staff and, as a bonus, veterans of the 101st Airborne Division who continue to reach out to today’s “Screaming Eagles.”

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Army Pfc. Charles “C.J.” Stewart, a wounded 101st Airborne Division soldier being treated at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, gets regular visits and support from members of the 101st Airborne Division Association and the 506th Airborne Infantry Regiment Association. Among his most frequent visitors are retired Army Col. Bob Seitz, left, and former Army Maj. Dick Winters. Courtesy photo
  

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

Stewart was on a rescue mission in June when the 1st Brigade, 502nd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team’s Combat Outpost Fitzpatrick in Pashmul, Afghanistan, came under attack. As Stewart, a combat medic, ran to get his medical bag, one of the incoming rocket-propelled-grenade rounds nearly ripped his right arm from his body.

Thirty-six surgeries later, with another scheduled for tomorrow to repair nerve damage in his now fully reattached arm, Stewart is an outpatient living at Walter Reed’s Mologne House.

But more than six months after being wounded, far from his buddies in Afghanistan and his unit headquarters at Fort Campbell, Ky., he’s never lost his feeling of connection to the 101st Airborne Division.

That’s because he gets regular visits, not just from his unit’s rear detachment, but also by members of the 101st Airborne Division Association and its regimental associations.

The associations have visitation teams that call on division soldiers being treated at Walter Reed and all other major military hospitals. If they can’t visit personally, they frequently ask another 101st veteran to visit as their representative.

Retired Army Col. Bob Seitz leads the visitation teams for both the 101st Airborne Division Association and 506th Airborne Infantry Regiment Association.

“Saying ‘Thank you’ isn’t enough,” said Seitz, who served with the 506th AIR in Vietnam. “The key thing is, we let these young soldiers and their families know that we genuinely care about their recovery. We want the soldier and the entire family to know through the whole course of the recovery, no matter how long it takes, that we are there for them, ready to support them in any way they need us to.”

Visitation team members arrive at the hospital as quickly as possible after the wounded warrior is able to receive visitors. Often they pick up families flying into a nearby airport, transport them to the hospital and help them get settled in at their new temporary quarters.

The veterans visit the soldiers laden with gift bags full of unit memorabilia, including unit flags to hang in their hospital rooms, as well as incidentals to make their hospital stays more comfortable. And throughout their treatment and recuperation, they stop by regularly to check on soldiers’ progress and see if there’s anything they need.

“We develop a relationship with the family and the soldier because, when we see something come up as an issue or concern, we want to be able to take it off the plate,” Seitz said.

“We old guys can sense out a problem pretty quickly and then work to solve it, either help the Army solve it or solve it as an association,” he continued. “And that’s important, because if these soldiers have an issue or a problem, that works against a good attitude and good morale and in getting well.”

Often the associations’ help comes in the form of financial assistance. It may be diapers for a young family that’s just run out or toys to entertain young children away from home while their wounded parent recovers. In at least one case, it was heating oil for a military wife struggling to make ends meet after giving up her regular paycheck to care for her husband.

The associations also frequently cover the cost of plane tickets for family members who have to travel back and forth between their loved ones’ hospital beds and jobs at home. “The Army pays for one round trip, but it doesn’t pay for multiple round trips,” Seitz said. “We can provide them additional tickets, without any reimbursement back to us as our gift to them.”

Some of the associations, including the 506th, also provide scholarships and financial support for widows and orphans of division soldiers.

Donations to the organizations cover the cost of this support. And because the organizations are run by volunteers and have no operating costs, Seitz said 100 percent of the contributions go directly toward helping wounded warriors and their families.

Army Maj. Bradd Schultz, rear detachment commander for the 101st AD’s 4th Brigade Combat Team, called the associations’ support a godsend.

“They’re very powerful in what they can do as advocates for the soldier,” he said. “They’ve been doing this for years, they know everybody at Walter Reed and the other hospitals and they can fix a problem before I even know about it.”

Schultz said it gives him great peace of mind knowing that the visitation teams serve as his regular eyes and ears at Walter Reed. They can report back on things hospital reports simply don’t reveal -- such as soldiers’ morale -- and key the rear detachment in to any issues they need to know about.

Schultz said it’s also great knowing where to turn to when he learns of a problem and needs help.

“I can call them up and say, ‘I have a soldier with an issue and $200 will solve it, and I get the check for $200 to solve the issue,” he said. “These guys are amazing in terms of what they do for our soldiers.”

Robin Stewart said she’s been amazed at the support the 101st association has provided her son C.J. as he recuperates at Walter Reed.

“From the time he first arrived at Walter Reed, they have always checked in on us, sometimes even daily,” she said. “They’ve been absolutely awesome. And you knew from the start, they weren’t there because they felt obligated. They were there because they truly cared.”

C.J. is now hanging the third division flag he received from the 101st association because the first two have been completely covered with autographs from visiting well-wishers – ball players, celebrities, general officers, even President Barack Obama.

But Stewart said the association’s support to her son and family goes far beyond material gifts. “It’s the comfort of them stopping by, checking on us, and knowing there’s someone we can call if we need them,” she said.

For CJ, the visits are an opportunity to hear the stories of former 101st soldiers, learn about his division’s legacy, and get a regular reminder that the division takes care of its own. “They’ve been here for me, checking in on how everything is going and doing their best to give me a homey feeling here,” he said. “There’s a definite bond.”

Eugene “Gene” Overton Jr., cofounder and membership director of the 506th AIR Association, called its support for wounded warriors and their families a way to recognize the sacrifices of soldiers who are continuing the Screaming Eagles’ proud legacy.

“The greatest value of what we do is letting the soldiers and their families know they are not alone, and that their family is a lot larger than their immediate family,” he said. “A lot of veterans are out there, ready, willing and able to support them.”

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101st Airborne Division

Click photo for screen-resolution imagePresident Barack Obama signs a 101st Airborne Division flag while visiting Army Pfc. Charles “C.J.” Stewart, a wounded 101st Airborne Division soldier being treated at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. Stewart has received three “Screaming Eagles” flags as gifts from the 101st Airborne Division Association. Courtesy photo   
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageEvery nook and cranny in Army Pfc. Charles “C.J.” Stewart’s room at Walter Reed Army Medical Center showed signs that the 101st Airborne Division hadn’t forgotten him. Courtesy photo   
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageThe 101st Airborne Division Association presented Army Pfc. Charles “C.J.” Stewart a third division flag as the first two got covered with autographs of well-wishers to his hospital room at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. The division association and four regimental associations maintain a strong support system for wounded warriors and their families. Courtesy photo   
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