I recently spent an emotional and inspirational day in Washington. It gave me a sense of pride in our country and its people, especially those brave, dedicated and loyal young men and women in our armed forces.
I was in town for a healthcare conference and during that event went to dinner with Edward Eckenhoff, chief executive officer of National Rehabilitation Hospital; Diane Appleyard, president of the Healthcare Research and Development Institute; and Thomas Chapman, president and CEO of the HSC Foundation. Over dinner Eckenhoff told us about a young Marine corporal recently admitted to his hospital. He said this man was one of the most inspirational people he had ever met. He thought that if we had the time, we should visit the man the next day, which we did.
We met the corporal, Oscar Canon. He was humble and articulate. He left me with a sense of pride for all the wonderful men and women who serve in harm's way in Iraq and Afghanistan. These are special people who come from farms, suburbs, and big cities-from all walks of life. They share a love of country, a sense of duty and a hope for the future. They make the words duty, honor and country come alive.
Canon had been hit badly during the heavy fighting in Fallujah, Iraq, while leading his platoon. They had been ambushed and he lost six of his men. Three had died in his arms. He was injured by gunfire several times and was evacuated to a base in Germany and then, eventually, to the U.S. He had undergone a number of surgeries and showed me and Appleyard his substantial scars.
Canon said his wife had flown out from the West Coast to see him but had a very difficult time with his injuries. She couldn't look at them. He was still in a lot of pain.
Here was this man lying in a hospital bed with extensive wounds, and he was telling us about his men and how much he wanted to get back to them, about how much good is being done with Iraqi children that we don't hear about, about his belief in the mission that had been set for him and his troops.
I asked him what he wanted for Christmas, and he asked if it was possible for us to send some gifts to his battalion. I promised him that would happen, and those gifts are being sent as I write this column.
Later that day, I headed to the airport to catch my plane back to Chicago. At the security checkpoint I saw a man sitting in a wheelchair with his right leg elevated. I asked him what had happened, and he told me he had just returned from Iraq and was simply trying to figure out how to get on a plane home to St. Louis. I helped him through the security process. We visited for a while after that, and he told me about being on a Blackhawk helicopter that was shot down. He was a mechanic assigned to keep the helicopter flying; he and the pilot were the only people on board when it crashed. The female pilot lost both legs in the incident but lived. "I had just finished taking that ship apart stem to stern and then put it back together," he told me. "It was a good ship and it got us back on the ground, even though it had been hit badly."
The surgeons did a good job with his leg, but he said he was going to have to keep it elevated and not stand on it for weeks. During our visit he talked by cell phone to his wife, who at the time was driving to St. Louis from Dixon, Mo., with their three children to meet him.
This man is a grizzled veteran, having been in the Marines for nearly eight years back in the late 1980s and early 1990s. He also participated in the Persian Gulf War. He left the Marines and went home but later joined the National Guard. His unit was activated and he ended up back in Iraq.
He told me the Blackhawk helicopter he was assigned to took troops to insurgent areas. As a result, the chopper was often in the middle of heavy fire. This guy was 38 years old, but he seemed like he had seen everything.
After I bade him farewell, I found it very hard to get him and Oscar Canon out of my mind. I have been in touch with both and I have told them how much I appreciate their service, their courage and their love of country. They feel they are protecting us through their service in Iraq, upholding the freedom and democracy we cherish. I kissed both on their cheeks and I hugged them, because out of all the things we can be there is nothing more honorable, nothing more courageous than serving your country.
If you would like to help support our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, one way I would suggest is to get in touch with a great organization, OperationFirstResponse.org. At its Web site you can make a contribution of cash, services and even frequent flier miles to soldiers.
We aren't asked to do much to help in this war effort, but this is one way we civilians can begin to repay those who are on the front lines in the war against terrorism. It's the least we can do.
God bless the United States of America,