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SILVER SPRING, MARYLANDStaff Sergeant Christopher Bain unwittingly pulled his luxury Chrysler into the red zone of the Metro station here, stopped, and then watched as a stocky, Kevlar-wrapped policeman made a slow, expressionless approach.
"This zone is for buses only," said the cop, from somewhere beneath a dark baseball hat pulled low. He gestured to an invisible sign 100 yards away near the main road. "Your license and registration please."
The policeman might not have noticed the eight-inch scar that looks like a shark bite on Bain's left arm, an injury he sustained during a mortar attack on his base in Iraq last April; or the ring finger that Bain lost, then reclaimed, after the same attack; or the bullet wound in his right elbow. But he saw Bain's military ID, which slipped out with the driver's license. "What service are you in?"
"Army," replied Bain, and that was it. The policeman stooped down, pointed at the car's passenger, and smiled widely back at Bain. "Next time, make him walk." They shared a laugh, and Bain dodged a $75 ticket.
Washington, D.C., and its surrounds have dispatched informal envoys to greet the veterans coming home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, men and women who left the battlefields with horrific, life-changing injuries or deep psychological scars.
From a distance, it seems a kind of celebrity has attached to the returnees, many of whom proudly show off snapshots with starstruck politicians, ordinary citizens, and even movie stars. Up close, there are real expressions of sympathy and concern, and it's little wonder: A roomful of men in their early twenties, learning to live with amputated limbs, severe burns, eye patches, and head scars, shocks even the initiated.
Bain, a former electrician, is one of over 15,000 soldiers who have been medically evacuated from Iraq. More than 10,000 of those, by the Defense Department's count, were wounded seriously enough that they won't return. The injured soldiers are usually stabilized at Landstuhl hospital in Germany, before making their way to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.
Official Washington's "welcome home" reaches a high point during George W. Bush's $40 million inauguration festivities this week, which carry the moniker "Celebrating Freedom, Honoring Service," and include a gala dinner for veterans, and another one called the "Commander in Chief" ball.
The Bush administration has been criticized for such lavish spending during wartime, as it solicits donations for the festivities in chunks of $100,000 or more. But Chris Bain, a solid Republican, doesn't mind. He and several close friends, all veterans of Iraq or Afghanistan, will be sitting a few tables away from Bush at one of the inaugural balls. Last week, they ran around gathering their "Class A" dress uniforms for the occasion.
Elsewhere on Inauguration Day, protesters with a thousand empty coffins, symbolizing the nearly 1,400 service members killed in Iraq so far, will also be vying for Bush's attention, calling for an end to the war.
Chris Bain is a third-generation soldier, and so is his twin brother, Kim, still in Iraq. The Bain twins, 33, are five-six, and built powerfully like boxers, which it turns out they are. Kim even went pro for a time. Chris, in his amateur career, racked up a record of 86-2. One of those losses, he said, was to Kim.
Today, Bain lives in the Summit Hill Apartments, a housing complex here in which the army has rented places for convalescing soldiers. The Mologne House, a 280-room hotel on the grounds of Walter Reed, long ago reached capacity. Out in Summit Hill, Bain and his roommate, Jason Goldsmith, move around easily, and the apartment is calm, white, and modern. On one evening a week before Christmas, Bain, Goldsmith, and their friend Larry Gill, also injured in Iraq, sat in the living room, and watched the Denzel Washington film Man on Fire. On the wall hung a huge, airbrushed poster of two soldiers helping an injured colleague, with the words "Never leave a fallen comrade" along the bottom.
Bain half paid attention to the film, stopping to show off things he'd acquired since returning from Iraq. There was a picture of him with Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, and another with Bo Derek. He has a football autographed by Redskins coach Joe Gibbs, and a pit pass from a NASCAR race. His fatigues hung in the closet, and he lowered his voice when he revealed he'd likely never wear them again. Bain's helmet, which probably saved his life in Iraq, didn't make it back.
Bain said he had stopped listening to the news from the war, except for what he heard from his brother, and from the men in his unit. He complained about the press, saying reporters focused too often on the bad things that happen there. "I'd love to challenge them," he said. "I'd love to get on television." He is considering a future run for Congress, but for now he's a volunteer intern at the Department of Veterans Affairs. The injuries to his arm and hands mean he writes painfully, and types slowly.
"I'm happy to have what I have," he said. "I'm about 60 percent now." In a few days, he would head back home to see his wife and three kids in Pennsylvania. First, though, there was drinking to do, at the weekly steak dinner a few blocks from the White House.