Wolfowitz Hosts Valentine's Luncheon for War Wounded
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Feb. 13, 2004 Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz hosted an early Valentine's Day lunch today to thank soldiers wounded in the war on terror for their service and to assure them that America holds a special place in its heart for them.
Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz chats with U.S. Army Sgt. James Russell at a Valentine's Day Pentagon luncheon Feb. 13 for a group of troops being treated at nearby Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Photo by Donna Miles
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
"We in the Defense Department truly love you and the country loves you," Wolfowitz said at a Pentagon dining room decorated with red, pink and white tulips and heart-shaped boxes of chocolate.
Senior military leaders and pro-wrestling celebrity David Batista from Team Evolution joined the deputy secretary in thanking the troops.
"You are very special guests, and each one of you is an American hero," Wolfowitz told the soldiers, all patients at nearby Walter Reed Army Medical Center being treated for injuries received in Iraq and Afghanistan. "You've been to war, you've faced its demands with courage and you've borne its wounds."
Wolfowitz praised the soldiers for the "fantastic job" they and their fellow soldiers have played in countering threats to the United States. "You and your friends have helped make the world a safer place," he said, "and have struck a devastating blow against the terrorists."
The deputy thanked the family members who he said "kept the home fires burning and were there when the wounded soldiers returned from battle" to help restore them to health. "No medicine is as good as the love and care of family members," he said.
Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the cost of the war "is pretty obvious to those of you in this room" and that pain and heartbreak many experienced may stay with them for years to come.
But the stakes, Myers stressed, couldn't be higher. He said terrorists "want to do away with our way of life," and that the only thing standing in their way is the U.S. military active, reserve and National Guard.
The chairman praised the soldiers for their sacrifices and contributions during a critical time in history. "You are a great generation and extremely important to the security of this country," he said. "And we appreciate that very much."
Myers told the troops that in time, "as you look back on what you have just done, you will realize that this is really your moment in history."
But it's not only "your moment in history," he said. "It's a chance to change the course of history."
Staff Sgt. Jeff Baker from the 10th Mountain Division, said he was "in awe" at the opportunity to receive personal thanks for his service from the top defense leaders. Baker was being treated for shrapnel injuries after a rocket-propelled grenade in Afghanistan hit his humvee.
"It's pretty awesome being here," agreed Sgt. Shae Sheff from the 47th Support Battalion, who was evacuated from Iraq after being diagnosed with cancer of the eye. "It's hard to put into words what it feels like. It shows appreciation for what we've done for our country."
Some soldiers at the luncheon shared tables with their Valentine's sweethearts. Sgt. Mike Cain, a member of the Fort Hood, Texas-based 299th Engineers who lost his leg to an antitank mine in Iraq, sat beside his fiance, Leslie Lantz. "It's nice to know that they're being recognized," she said of the luncheon.
But no one in the room appeared to enjoy the luncheon or the opportunity to spend Valentine's Day together as much as Spc. Manuel Contreras and his wife Ruby.
Contreras, assigned to the 1st Battalion, 10th Cavalry Regiment, was admitted to Walter Reed earlier in the week to be treated for the parasitic disease leishmaniasis, which he developed in Iraq. Ruby arrived from San Antonio Feb. 12 to see her husband for the first time in almost a year.
"This takes my breath away, seeing all these people you see in the newspapers," Contreras said. "This is just the best."