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Wounded Warriors visit campus over weekend

By NICOLE TOCZAUER | Monday, September 27, 2010

Chad Watson walked into the Oak Room above South Dining Hall last Friday evening as anyone else would. One foot after the other, each step as steady as the last. No one would guess that Watson lost his leg in Fallujah, Iraq, a few years ago when an explosive detonated under a Humvee he was driving.

“I got involved with Wounded Warriors by originally being a wounded warrior myself,” said Watson, now the area outreach coordinator for the Midwest for the Wounded Warrior Project. “I was a marine, and in 2006, I came back to a hospital and recovered there for 17 months. While I was there, I met the Wounded Warrior Project and they helped me out a lot.”

Now, Watson works with the Wounded Warrior Project to help other soldiers transition to civilian life when they return home.

“Not all service members have a lot of support. A lot of people help them in the hospital, but they seem to forget what happens after,” he said. “The Wounded Warrior Project is here to honor and empower the veterans once they get back home.”

The Wounded Warriors hold events where the veterans can simply enjoy themselves, as they have done by visiting Notre Dame.

Patrick Concannon, president of the New York Fire Department Fire Family Transport Foundation and member of the Notre Dame class of 1977, said Wounded Warriors began visiting Notre Dame shortly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Since then, they have made this trip annually for six years.

These trips allow the veterans a break from the everyday, which often involves a difficult transition back into society. Many times the most difficult injuries aren’t physically noticeable.

“A lot of these guys deal with post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic head injury. What’s happened is that they’re so close to these explosions that the brain hits the skull and bounces back,” Concannon said. “It’s a long fight up to where they were before they went overseas.”

Four months of work on this specific event culminated this weekend.

Concannon said this event is particularly special because it is a giant venture between the Los Angeles Fire Department, the New York City Fire Department, the Chicago Fire Department, the South Bend Fire Department, the Elkhart Fire Department and the Notre Dame Fire Department. Working together, they brought, fed and housed every Wounded Warrior visiting campus over the weekend.

On Friday, the Warriors cheered at the pep rally amidst a sea of green and enjoyed a banquet in the Oak Room above South Dining Hall. On Saturday they were escorted with lights and sirens to their tailgate party and then to the stadium for the game. The weekend closed with a party at Concannon’s home in South Bend.

Touring campus, the Wounded Warriors Project facilitators and veterans said they have come to appreciate the students of Notre Dame. One specific case showed itself when freshman Lauren Katen and the a cappella group Halftime offered to perform for the warriors at their banquet.

“I mean, it’s just unbelievable how the younger generations are gathering to show their respect,” Cocannon said. “We didn’t even have to ask. [Katen] and the choir offered to do it, which was really great.”

Concannon said he views actions like these gratefully, especially since he predicts that next year, there will be more Wounded Warriors from Afghanistan and Iraq coming home. He said with the way things are going, people will need to show respect to these soldiers more than ever.

“Even when you display the American flag, they see that,” he said. “It’s little things like this that add up to a big impact.”

To be even more proactive, he suggested checking out the Wounded Warrior website. Nick Hintz of the Elkhart Fire Department agreed with him, and encouraged everyone to come to events.

“See if there’s something in the area. Just come out and thank them, support them and find out who they are,” Hintz said. “Ask if there’s anything you can do, which could be as simple as handing out water bottles or serving food.”

The Wounded Warrior Project tries to not only help rehabilitate the men and women who return, but to also give them opportunities to enjoy a bit more of life, since they protect our freedom to do so.

“The freedoms and things that we enjoy in this country have to be protected by somebody, and they really selflessly put themselves on the line for those freedoms,” said Steve Grabowski, lieutenant of the Chicago Fire Department.

Watson said the time to show respect may occur at any time, even on campus.

“They passed the post-9/11 GI Bill, so a lot of service members are coming back and going to universities. Make them fell welcome,” Watson said. “And every time you see a veteran, thank them, no matter what war. They’re the ones that allow us to do what we do — like go to college.”

With the gift of freedom, which allows United States citizens to attend universities and enter careers of their choosing, Concannon suggested Notre Dame students follow their hearts. Doing so, they can change the world for the better.

“As a Notre Dame grad, I think that the Notre Dame students that go out into the world can all make the differences, whether it’s me being in the fire department or working with the Haiti Relief Fund or anything,” he said. “Your degree, and eventually your life, can work toward that.”

He said that every trip to Notre Dame includes a journey to the Grotto, where the veterans and firemen light candles and pray, having a chance to reflect.

“One of the things about soldiers is that they ask for nothing but that they appreciate everything,” Grabowski said.