It could be a scene unfolding in any small town in America, grateful people welcoming home war heroes. Not too common anymore, except in Rockaway Beach, New York, where it has become an annual event.
We are not talking about ordinary soldiers, although ordinary could not describe any soldier during wartime. The soldiers in this parade have sacrificed much and Rockaway has found a way to thank them. The Wounded Warriors weekend has become a moving, emotional event that plays itself out on our peninsula every July for the last three years. Anyone that has been lucky enough to be a part of it would want to tell you what a wonderful thing it is, but the problem is that in describing the weekend, one is often at a loss for words.
This year’s “Wounded Warriors” included 40 Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans who participated in the Adaptive Water Sports Festival.
The entire weekend is designed to help the wounded soldiers participate in water sports that they may not have attempted after their life-altering injuries. The social part of the weekend brings a little simple fun back into their lives.
The weekend starts out on Thursday evening. As the sun begins its descent in the summer sky, neighbors gather along Rockaway Beach Blvd. The sea air mingles on the breeze as sun-kissed children wave small American flags. Parents and grandparents chat easily with friends while the air buzzes with excitement. Patriotic bunting is draped over porches, and beach chairs that were planted in the sand only hours ago now create an informal viewing stand. Young children proudly hold signs; some are elaborate works of art dotted with red, white and blue glitter that welcome the soldiers to Rockaway. Others form a lump in your throat when you read the simply stated “Thank You.” You have to pause and remind yourself that some of the children that hold them were not even born or were small babies on that fateful day in September 2001 when life as we knew it changed, and young men and women across the country were filled with a sense of duty. Well, for some, their time has been served and they are home, broken but alive. Most of them have just finished their rehab, others are due for more surgery, and some, and you can tell which ones right away, are on their very first outing from Walter Reed Military Hospital. They are accompanied by wives and children and various family members. They are welcomed home in a way that they have not been before.
The Wounded Warriors roll into town in style, and are welcomed into the arms of people who lost loved ones on 9/11. In a police-escorted motorcade, the soldiers arrive on the top of FDNY fire trucks waving flags and beaming at the warm welcome. If you squint your eyes just right at the sun, you can almost see the spirits of our own 343 [firefighters lost on 9/11] riding right along with them. The first-timers look stunned while the returnees call out to people who are now good friends. The motorcade is often flanked by NYPD helicopters and the FDNY fireboats greet them with a spray of water at every bridge crossing. The motorcade winds through the streets of Breezy Point to cheering crowds and works its way into Rockaway to pass by St. Francis deSales Church.
One can’t help but remember less than a year ago a similar more solemn procession held here for a local fallen Marine, Michael Glover, nephew of the now retired FDNY Chief of the Department Peter Hayden. In a world where too often people like Paris Hilton and Britney Spears grace the covers of our papers, you can’t help but think about the countless young men and women who have already dealt with more heartache and tragedy that anyone should have to endure in a lifetime.
“What happened to us is sad, but when we come here we feel a connection. You people get it,” says Corporal Marcus Martinez, a big strapping Marine from Lincoln, Nebraska. “Every soldier wants to come here, who wouldn’t? Everyone opens their doors and their homes and their lives to you. I have been here for two years now and I feel like I have family here.” Marcus relates stories of still hospitalized soldiers: “All of the young soldiers want to come here once they hear about how great our weekend is, and they all work harder at their physical therapy so they are in shape to make the trip when the time comes.”
Perhaps it is a fate-filled connection that these men and women, most of them from remote parts of the country, experience here every year. There is a palpable feeling of empathy and understanding. Rockaway knows too well the feelings of loss and change and has learned the lessons of perseverance and hope since that September morning. The community suffered the loss of many neighbors killed at the World Trade Center, including many firefighters and rescue workers. While still reeling with grief, fate added a cruel twist on November 12, 2001, when American Airlines Flight 587 crashed into the heart of the town, killing 260 on board and five beloved neighbors on the ground, in the second- largest air disaster in this country. The town pulled together, then literally fought the fire and cleaned up the devastation while trying to console the heartbroken families. Perhaps a true testimony to the warmth and compassion is the fact that the families who lost their loved ones and all of their earthly possessions decided to settle down in nearby houses and continue to live here. Through all the loss, it was still home. Rockaway knows what it is like to be brought down to its knees and to rise up again. And to give back.
Three years ago, while trying to find a way to reach out to others, the idea for hosting the Wounded Warriors was born. It was the brainchild of retired New York City firefighter Flip Mullen, who together with his wife, Rita, and a local grassroots organization called the Graybeards, planned the beginning stages of what was to become a phenomenal event. “We needed to find a way to do something for these guys. They went over there for all of us, especially for us here in New York. We needed to let them know that they would not be forgotten,” says Mullen. “We are, in a sense, giving them the welcome home that they don’t really get. It’s as simple as that.”
Mullen went on to recruit volunteers from various groups he knew he could tap into. New York City firefighters, many from Ladder 120 and Engine 231, immediately jumped in to help, shuttling soldiers to and from events and the homes they were staying in. The Graybeards, which originally started as an over-40 basketball league, began turning its efforts to helping the community. They found a new mission after 9/11 and began a series of outreach projects. They knew the neighborhood would turn out to help, so they lent a hand in organizing the weekend. The Adaptive Ski Program and the Disabled Veterans Association also got involved, and together, the collaborators worked through incredible logistics to pull it off.
Housing all the soldiers and their families and therapists, and other various members of the Wounded Warrior organization is no easy task. “We could put these guys up in hotels, but that would defeat the purpose of giving them a warm hometown welcome,” recalls Mullen. “When I originally looked into this I asked them at Walter Reed, ‘What is it these guys need? What can we do for them?’ They told me that they need to socialize, and to know that the world is still going to accept them with missing arms or legs, or whatever.”
Nobody is better at “social” than Rockaway. Ask any Irish-American New Yorker and you can bet that they have a “Rockaway” story in their archives, whether it be traveling by subway to the beach on a Sunday afternoon, or visiting an aunt’s rental house where bungalows were known to magically sleep 14 cousins at once. We all have the fond memories and countless stories of children sitting in sandy bathing suits in one of the many Irish pubs listening to ceili music and eating chips and drinking Cokes while parents danced and chatted, the Irish brogues and laughter filling up whatever fine establishment they were in. A familiar warm smile appears when one recalls those summers spent here so long ago. It comes from a lifestyle or time lived by the sea, and it comes naturally to the people of Rockaway.
The parade ends at the Belle Harbor Yacht Club where the “Meet and Greet” is held. Dinner is served as the soldiers meet their host families. Personal connections are made when homes and meals are shared, and the weekend will have an impact on the hosts as well as the soldiers. Many of the soldiers from previous years have kept in touch and have even visited on different occasions.
Friday begins early at the Breezy Point Yacht Club, where a wide variety of water sports and instruction is offered. Food and music and the energy of the soldiers here make it feel like a private beach in the Bahamas. Physical therapists who are part of the Wounded Warriors organization are available at all times to help the soldiers should they need it, and local firefighters are specially trained to help in the water. Even though some soldiers have never been in the ocean, they find themselves, in a very short time, standing on water skis for the first time, with one leg, or one arm. Last year a triple amputee graced the cover of a national magazine when his picture was taken here on water skis bearing a smile from ear to ear. Fishing, sailing and kayaking are available along with scuba diving instruction – activities that any one of these soldiers, lying in their bed at Walter Reed, could not have imagined ever attempting again. “If I can do this, I can do anything” is the popular motto of the weekend.
Sergeant Noah Galloway from Alabaster, Alabama, lost his leg during his second tour in Iraq. “After your Twin Towers fell here in New York City, I was mad as hell. I really didn’t know what you people were feeling, but I had to do something to help and so I enlisted in the Army.” His face is young and handsome, and his enthusiasm for life seeps from his pores. You almost don’t notice that he’s missing an arm and a leg, until he asks you to hold his can of beer so he can shake someone’s hand.
“I came home the first time and everything was fine, but on my second deployment I was hit and that was it.” He recalls his injuries with a bit of a crooked grin, testimony to his positive approach to life. “You can’t sit around feeling sorry for yourself, things happen to you in this life. It’s all how you deal with it.
“Recently a balding man came up to me in a store and said, ‘Wow, I can’t imagine losing my limbs like that,’ to which I replied, ‘Yeah? Well, I can’t imagine losing my hair like you.’ It really is all how you look at it.”
On Friday evening a boat is chartered from Sheepshead Bay for a dinner cruise. With patriotic music playing and fireworks bursting overhead, the soldiers gather on the top deck as the boat cruises by the Lady in the Bay, and the empty space where the towers once stood is just as noticeable today as it was to all of us almost six years ago. An experienced screenwriter could not come up with this kind of stuff.
Saturday evening you will find Beach 134th Street near the ocean filled with family, friends and soldiers for our Special Athletics fundraiser. This annual event raises money for a very special group of athletes that are much loved here in Rockaway, and the soldiers are our honored guests at a traditional summer event. Children and soldiers and volunteers and Special Athletes all laugh and dance and have fun well into the night. Sunday morning dawns bright and early, a bit brighter perhaps than a few would like – the few that experience the Rockaway nightlife. However early it seems, the Mass at the Breezy Point 9/11 memorial is not to be missed.
The memorial is simple but powerful. It consists of a replica of the steel cross that was recovered at the World Trade Center site, and of separate glass panels etched with personal poems and the names of all the Breezy Point residents who died on 9/11.
Almost every soldier you talk to will tell you that they signed up to serve because of what happened in New York on 9/11, so it’s appropriate that we gather at a place that commemorates it so beautifully.
The Mass is celebrated by Father Peter Rayder, associate pastor at Holy Name Parish in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Father Peter was raised in a large family here in Rockaway, and was always active in community events. He reminds us that “sure we all feel better when we do something for someone else, but these soldiers are letting us off easy. We can’t do enough for them, after all they have sacrificed for us. They have gone off to a country where people need compassion and healing, and during that time, have sacrificed much.” He went on to tell the crowd, “We gather this weekend, and we thank them, but it’s not enough. We need to remember them. We need to live our lives and make a difference because of them. We need to pray for them and if we can’t do that, we should go home and take down our flags.”
Noah Galloway, with his Alabama twang, summed it up best when he said, “The doctors and therapists can give us all the physical healing in the world, but when we come here to Rockaway, well I tell you, it’s just therapy for the soul. This is what heals our souls.”
The soldiers thank us; we thank the soldiers, over and over. Sunday evening finds everyone with that slightly drained feeling you get after a good cry, and the goodbyes are never easy. Rockaway finishes another year of trying to give back, just a little, to those that go and do for our country and for freedom and for all the good things we are taught to be grateful for. Wounded Warriors, we remember you and thank you. The healing begins, and that is therapy for all of our souls. ♦