Serving those who serve

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Paul Tibbets
  • 393d Bomb Squadron commander
I stepped off the airplane in Pittsburgh ready to address a group of veterans at State Senator Jane Clare Orie's 11th Annual Memorial Tribute to Our Veterans and Service People. There were two other planned speakers, a Navy officer who had just returned from an Iraq deployment and an individual from the Coalition to Salute America's Heroes. I knew very little about the latter organization and had really not given it much thought.

Then, as I made eye contact with a friend of mine who was driving me that day, next to him stood an individual whom I only assumed had suffered more pain and agony than I could every imagine. His story is amazing and humbling to this 18+ year Air Force Veteran (some information taken from the Oct. 25, 2004 story in Knight Ridder Newspapers).

Army Reserve Sgt. Joe Washam remembers saying, "It's gonna blow!" What happened next is something those of us stateside might have seen in the newspaper. Or perhaps we heard a fragment of a broadcast while we were making dinner and halfway listening.
"Search for chemicals leads to Baghdad blast; two soldiers killed, five wounded." For most of us, the story ends there. For Joe Washam, the story had hardly begun. The 24-year-old former high school varsity football player had spent just a month in Iraq when it happened. Bomb-making chemicals exploded in a Baghdad storehouse just as coalition forces were about to enter. Flames shot out, engulfing the Humvee in which Joe rode in as a machine gunner. He recalls searing heat, noise, smoke and running away from the fire as fast as he could. His gloves melted on his hands.

After the blast, he woke up in San Antonio's Brooke Army Medical Center. It was mid-May, and he'd been unconscious for 11 days. Third-degree burns covered 40 percent of his body - mainly his face, back and arms.
"Look," he says, "you can see where my watch was." It imprinted on his arm.

Doctors at the 1,250-patient medical center also noticed what was imprinted on his heart. Joe Washam is a trouper. He enlisted in the Army during high school. He did his stint and didn't re-up. He was out of the Army and ready to study at the University of Texas at Arlington.

Sept. 11, 2001, changed his mind. He joined the Army Reserve and asked to be sent to Iraq. "I would rather have someone sent over there like me, someone who wanted to go rather than someone who didn't want to be there," Joe said.

His positive outlook prompted doctors at the medical center to ask Joe to give pep talks to other burn patients. "Therapists here tell you not to give up. A couple guys here did," he said. "I'd just say, 'Look at me. I'm going to keep trying.' "

He showed other burned soldiers his hands, both so drawn up by scar tissue that they appear to be grasping invisible doorknobs. He showed them how he has learned to use his fingers, even accomplishing the signing of papers. He told them about relearning how to walk, and he showed them his scarred face, his damaged nostril and, most important, his spirit. He was released from the hospital in mid-September.

As we drove from the airport and Joe relayed this story to me, I was speechless. He went through numerous other surgeries and eventually married his sweetheart whom he had been dating before the war. And finally, I learned of the organization I had not given much thought to before this trip and the one Joe was now employed by, the Coalition to Salute America's Heroes. It was founded in January 2004, with the mission to provide Americans with a way to honor and thank servicemembers who have sacrificed to defend our country in the Global War on Terror.

Many severely wounded and disabled servicemembers return home to confront extreme hardships, from physical and emotional disabilities to financial difficulties, joblessness and even homelessness. Dismayed by their plight, the Coalition to Salute America's Heroes designed programs that would address the most pressing needs of our returning heroes. Through financial aid, housing, career development, education and family support programs, they pay much-needed tribute and give much deserved assistance to wounded and disabled servicemembers and their families.

The Coalition to Salute America's Heroes partners with the Department of Defense and the Department of Veteran's Affairs, government service organizations, corporations, individuals and volunteers to develop and fund programs that ease the transition and also offer a nurturing respite from challenges that often arise when transitioning from the battlefront to the home front.

And Joe, this hero I was getting to know and deeply respect, was a beneficiary of this top-notch organization long before being employed by them. At his point of greatest need, the Coalition to Salute America's Heroes was there to help him. Since its inception, the Coalition has provided assistance to nearly 4,000 severely wounded servicemembers. When it comes to providing tangible benefits for the seriously wounded, no other organization does more throughout every stage of the recovery process than the Coalition.

Ray Clifford, executive director for the Coalition to Salute America's Heroes says, "Every day new troops are coming home with severe wounds and must face an often more difficult battle, adjusting to life with their injuries. But through the generous contributions that will be raised in this program, the Coalition to Salute America's Heroes will be able to help these wounded troops and their families rebuild their lives."

Here at Whiteman, we are removed from the harsh reality the Coalition serves every day. But, these are our brothers and sisters in arms, serving the same great United States of America we are. Awareness is vital. Country singer LeAnn Rimes and the Kellogg Company are currently helping to raise awareness for war veterans by partnering with the Coalition. Additionally, the Coalition will be an option for donations in this year's Combined Federal Campaign. For more information, see

As George Washington said back in 1789, "The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional as to how they perceive the Veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by their country."