Our intentions were good: let’s go visit the wounded troops on Thanksgiving and help them feel appreciated and loved on a day when many might not have family around!
There were seven of us. I had even called in advance to make sure we were allowed to visit on Thanksgiving. The lady on the other end of the phone told me the best thing to do would be to have Thanksgiving lunch with them. She told me the price, the dress code and that’s pretty much it.
We were all excited to go and, to be honest, a little be apprehensive. I mean, unless you’re a professional motivator, what can you really say to lift someone’s spirits and not be all awkward and weird at first. We were determined to make a go of it though. We drove through DC admiring the architecture and the fact that there were very few cars on the roads, both beautiful things. We finally made it to Walter Reed Army Medical Center and found the proper gate for access.
As we parked and started walking towards the main entrance I think we were all excited about the possibilities. Where would we end up sitting? Who would we end up talking to? What conversations would we have? How easy would it be to get past the pleasantries and down to real good talk? I never once thought about the food and if it would be good. I’ve heard stories of military chow halls.
There was a volunteer welcoming everyone into the building and guiding us to the proper floors. We were told which floor to head to for the dining facility. In my head I had envisioned a cafeteria-style experience. With rows and rows of tables, stark, bright lights and corny decorations on the walls. The seats wouldn’t be attached to the tables like in elementary school though. I envisioned us going through the line, like in school, picking out what looked delicious, skipping the mystery vegetable. I envisioned sitting down with the troops, a low din would fill the cafeteria as people ate and talked and made merry during a holiday meal.
As we proceeded down the corridor and found the waiting line to enter the dining hall we found ourselves being presented with a cheese spread and a tray of smoke salmon wraps. This was beginning to make me question all the pictures I had drawn in my head. We waited for five or ten minutes until lunch began. This is a military facility, therefore lunch begins precisely when they say it is supposed to begin. In line I noticed that there were no patients. Lots of people who didn’t look like they were patients were lining up, chatting and laughing. No one was looking at us though like we were out of place.
11:00 rolled around and we made our way through the dining doors. We did go through a line for our food, but it was more like a nice buffet restaurant (where the bosses and people in charge serve the food), not cafeteria. The room was large and dimly lit and there were no corny decorations on the walls. In fact, there was an ensemble playing Christmas music in the corner, and an ice sculpture on one of the dessert tables. The tables weren’t end-to-end rectangles a la elementary school. It was more like a restaurant. There were dozens of “waiters” milling about making sure glasses were full and the bread and butter was passed around.
The food was delicious and the ambiance was beautiful, but where were the wounded troops? We saw two obvious wounded soldiers and they were there with their families. We were beginning to realize that our plans would go unrealized this Thanksgiving. I flagged down one of the helpers and asked where the troops were, and would it be possible to seat one with us if s/he came in without family. Five minutes later she came back, with answers but without a soldier.
What we found out is that the Thanksgiving lunch at Walter Reed is basically for the staff and workers of the facility. It’s for the people who have to work and be on call and on duty on Thanksgiving day. Apparently people like us with no affiliation at all can come too (you must have proper id to access the base though), and they seemed genuinely happy that we were there. After thinking about it everything makes sense. This is a hospital, not a normal base where everyone is healthy, ambulatory and can all come to the chow hall at the same time. There are strict guidelines about meeting and visiting the wounded troops and we weren’t going to get access to them on Thanksgiving day.
We had a wonderful and delicious Thanksgiving meal, just not with the people we had hoped. Lesson learned. When you’re wanting to do a good deed make sure to get all the facts straight beforehand. Visions that you spin up in your head may not reflect reality at all. I hope that there is something special done for the wounded soldiers on holidays when family may not be around and spirits may not be all that high. I’m not sure what we’ll do next year, but I don’t think we’ve given up yet.