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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.
At Fran O'Brien's, a cavernous restaurant in the basement of the Capital Hilton, Cindy Dwyer asked Bain, who was tending bar, for a Manhattan. He seemed more confident around simple drinks, like Jack Daniels and Coke. Dwyer, a real estate agent, had befriended several young soldiers, and she and her husband frequently had them over to their home for meals. "You've got to remember something," she said, as she tasted her drink, carefully. "All the scars don't show."
On a previous night here, Paul Wolfowitz had stopped by and stayed late, meeting the soldiers and their parents, chatting easily with the boys he had helped send to war. Everyone seemed anxious to meet him, and he gave them more than a few minutes.
This night, with Bain playing bartender, ended earlier, or at least moved on to its next phase sooner. He and his friends left the dining area for another part of the restaurant with a bar, and Steve Cobb, a Vietnam vet who's a regular at these events, stayed behind nibbling on a leftover steak dinner.
Cobb is an officer in the Military Order of the Purple Heart. He earned four in Vietnam, and wouldn't mind if some of these kids joined his organization. But that's not why he comes here. Approachable, with a gentle voice, Cobb projects tranquility among all the drinking and heartache. The night Wolfowitz made the rounds here, Cobb spent what seemed like half an hour gently massaging the skull of a young vet who'd been through major head trauma. The boy's mother stood next to them the whole time, saying little.
Today, Cobb spends a lot of time driving out to Andrews Air Force Base, where he meets the wounded before they're transferred to the hospital, and offers them all manner of assistance, from clothing to advice to a hug. He's trying to find more "breakaway" clothing for the injured, like the sweats basketball players wear.
"These guys are going to need help," said Cobb. "They might not know it yet, but we need to be there for them. There's nothing like the combat bond between veterans. It's instant, often nonverbal, and it usually lasts."
And then, as if on cue, a kid who had lost his leg hobbled over on crutches, and offered to grab Cobb a drink. "Thanks," Cobb said.
"No," the kid replied, "thank you, for all you do for us."
Outwardly, Chris Bain is a lot luckier than his friends. His scar, while nasty, isn't immediately visible. He can walk, and he can see. He drives his car without a problem, and can hold a fork, albeit delicately and with the wrong fingers.
Bain traveled to Iraq in January 2004, assigned to a different unit from his normal one. "The guys didn't necessarily like me," he said, because he was the chemical and biological weapons expert. That means he trains his soldiers in the "gas chamber," where they conduct painful exercises with CS, a potent tear gas. Bain said he works his soldiers harder than most.
In Iraq, his unit was stationed at Al-Taji, north of Baghdad. "I was on the road most of the time," he said. "Mostly supply runs. It was scary. If you're not scared when you're outside the wire, there's something wrong with you."
Bain said he got to know only a few Iraqis while he was abroad. One was a barber who cut his hair every week on the base. "He used a straight razor," Bain remembered. "I remember sitting down in that chair the first time, as he sharpened up and down the leather belt, and thinking to myself, am I going to be OK?" The barber, whose name Bain had forgotten, spoke a bit of Englishonce, the two even got into an argument. Bain later found out that the barber had been killed when he went home one day, a fate shared by many Iraqis who work with the Americans. "He was a nice guy," said Bain. "I wish I could remember his name." There were other Iraqis working on the base, two men Bain remembers named Muhammed and Ali.
"Some days, they wouldn't show up for work," he said. "That usually meant we were going to be attacked."
The day Bain almost lost his arm, and nearly his life, was the first time he saw his brother in Iraq. "We spent almost the whole day together," he said. Then his convoy headed back to Al-Taji, arriving safely. Ten minutes later, they were attacked by mortars, and Bain ended up under a five-ton truck, with three feet of clearance. "I was a magnet for lead that day," he said. "It felt like it was raining." He put his head down and faced the blast, as the rounds fell closer and closer. His left forearm was a mess of "meat and tissue," his right ring finger was severed, and his right elbow was bleeding, having at some point been shot clean through. Someone would find Bain's wedding ring and put it in his pocket while he was unconscious.
Today, when he looks at the scars, the scene comes rushing back, with all its fear and blood. It is not the only image that haunts Bain, who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder; he has started taking Zoloft to control his temper and clear his head. He talks about a family he saw killed after a truck in his convoy lurched away from an explosion. About an 11-year-old boy he flattened with the butt of his rifle, when the boy got too close. And a dog he saw by the side of the road, severed in half and dissected like a fetal pig.
Dogs, he said, were occasionally stuffed with explosives, and posed on the highway to look like roadkill.
But hitting the kid, whom Bain knocked out cold, broke him down. "I told my guys not to let the kids near us," he said. " 'Why?' they asked.' " Bain said he'd heard rumors that children were being paid to carry explosives. " 'Because I don't want to get killed here, and I don't want you getting killed here.' "
Bain said if he gets to talk to Bush at one of the receptions this week, which he thinks might happen, he would first ask the commander in chief for one of his special president's coins, to add to his military coin collection, which numbers in the hundreds.
"Then," Bain said, "I would ask the president how else I could be of service to him."