A special stranger for Christmas Day dinner
"How many observe Christ's birth-day! How few, his precepts! O! 'tis easier to keep Holidays than Commandments." -- Benjamin Franklin (Poor Richards Almanack, 1743)
(The quote above for Christmas Day came to me from a dear friend, a distinguished advocate for Veterans, and a highly decorated combat soldier from Viet Nam.....LC)
Chrismas Eve and Christmas Day have always been very special to my family and me. The sounds, settings, events, and even smells are part of our culture. I only missed one Christmas with my family, and that was when I was on active Navy duty in the Western Pacific aboard USS Calvert (APA-32) in 1956.
But this Christmas was different too, albeit at home, not because of any exceptions of the past, but because of the inclusion of a special "stranger," who had a major role recently to enable us to celebrate Christmas.....at all. Our special guest was Private First Class Jim____ a badly wounded U.S. soldier, fresh from combat in Iraq this past August, and who is now recovering at the James Haley VA Medical Center north of Tampa. He was picked up at the VA hospital on Christmas Day by a dear friend, Gil____, who insisted upon helping. Part of the ride was a scenic tour of Tampa including Ybor City, downtown, the Bayshore, and the University of Tampa. They arrived at our home with a wheelchair, carrying a potted poinsettia, and two bottles of sparkling grape juice.
My wife and I had recently met Jim at MOAA's monthly Operation Helping Hand "pot-luck" supper in the Haley VA hospital only in the past two weeks. We try to attend these when my schedule permits, and we make a point to visit with the wounded troops in the room, some of whom cannot communicate at all due to brain injuries. Jim was communicating well, but he was barely ambulatory because of severe fuel burns covering most of his body.
It happened on 18 AUG 2007 while on a street patrol; Jim was the turret machine gunner on the roof of an Army up-armored HUMVEE, which was turning around in the alley of an up-scale neighborhood in Baghdad. At that vulnerable moment, an improvised explosive device (IED) was triggered remotely, thus destroying the HUMVEE, and maiming its four occupants including Jim. Jim was also doused with flaming diesel oil from the HUMVEE's fuel tank, which required him to roll on the ground to smother the flames, and thereby aggravate the breaks in his legs from the vehicle structure clamshelling around him from the explosion.
Special surgery at Landstuhl Germany, then Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio TX, and now Haley in Tampa,......all had gotten Jim to the newly-ambulatory stage. Our brief discussion at dinner that first night revealed Jim had no family nearby, so my wife and I spontaneously asked him to join us Christmas Day,.....if he could tolerate a buffet for 16-18 people. He said he would like to come if it was OK with his doctor; his doctor was in the room, knew his case, and consented on-the-spot.
As we got to know him, we discovered Jim was no ordinary PFC (there are NO ordinary PFCs). At 41 yrs-old he had some college, owned his own construction business in Washington State for over a decade, had worked for Home Depot and a supermarket chain in southern California, and the time had come to FIGHT FOR HIS COUNTRY! With his backgound and age, the Army wanted to make him a clerk, but he insisted on going to Ft. Benning to get in the Army Ranger pipeline. A broken leg during an Airborne jump diverted him from Rangers, but he recovered and got classified 11B and was placed with a mechanized company on an 18 months deployment to Iraq. Here he was almost killed after only four months in-country.
I asked the blessing,....and thanked God for sparing Jim in his day of trial by combat, and asked for the same protection for all other allied troops in the field. Jim personified our personal reasons for Thanksgiving, Christmas, Veterans Day, and Memorial Day.....all rolled into this day.
After about 3 hours, which included the meal, a detailed description of how he was wounded (to a rapt audience ranging from 9 to 73), and the confusion of the grandchildren unwrapping gifts (including several for Jim), I saw him reaching for pain pills. He was ready to return to the hospital. I rode back to the hospital with Gil and Jim to help with the wheelchair, carry his presents (including 4 Tampa Bay Bucs tickets this coming weekend), and a full plate of leftover dinner. What a memorable experience it was to have a current day hero for dinner on this very special national holiday in our country.
May God bless our troops, our states, and our Nation.
/s/ LeRoy Collins, Jr.