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Forget the famous; war’s heroes make mark

POSTED: March 1, 2009 1:00 a.m.
Harris Blackwood/The Times

Edna Stephens, a Gainesville native, is honored as one of the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in a memorial at the Pentagon.

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WASHINGTON - His name is Rafael and he is a member of the U.S. Army. On Tuesday night, he was one of the guests attending the president's message to Congress.

So was I.

When the crowd applauded, Rafael did too. It was an effort for him to do so.

I watched out of the corner of my eye, trying not to stare. He is confined to a wheelchair and his arm movements were stiff and jerky. It was almost as if he had to aim to make palm meet palm.

I saw him in the hall afterward and shook his hand. I found out he served in Iraq. His speech was also affected by his injury, and I didn't go any further.

Sitting next to him was a young Marine in his full dress uniform. He too, was in a wheelchair.

During his speech, the president talked about people who love America. I couldn't help but turn and look at these two brave men who were injured serving their country. I don't think there were any greater Americans in the room.

Whenever the president comes to call, the gallery of the House is filled to capacity with guests ranging from the famous to congressional staff members who won an office lottery to get the one ticket given to every lawmaker.

I sat next to Elizabeth Kucinich, the statuesque wife of U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio. I had a nice conversation with Roberta Gassman, the labor secretary for Wisconsin. Just down the way was Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, the pilot who safely landed that airline jet into the Hudson River. I shook his hand on the way out and he was very nice.

But I couldn't quit thinking about those two uniformed servicemen who were wounded in the fight against terrorism.

I thought about them the next day when I visited the new Pentagon memorial, which has been built near the site where a hijacked jet was flown into the building by terrorists.

If the events of Sept. 11, 2001, had never happened, this would have been a parking lot or a walkway, but instead it is an unusual tribute to the 184 people who were killed, both aboard the plane and inside the Pentagon.

The memorial is a series of benches laid out in a pattern according to the year they were born, from 1998 to 1930. The benches, called memorial units, bear a resemblance to a diving board. There is a constant flow of water under each one.

Edna Stephens, a Gainesville native, is honored on a row with two others who, like her, were born in 1948.

I didn't know her, but she will always be a connection to that horrible tragedy that happened on our soil that day.

There are paved walkways through the memorial, but the ground is covered in fine gravel. On Edna Stephens' memorial unit there is a small collection of pebbles.

There is a tradition among Jews of placing a stone on a person's tombstone to indicate a visit and remembrance. I didn't know if that was the case here, but I reached down and put a pebble there, too.

I saw the president and I saw the famous, but I leave with thoughts of Edna Stephens and the image of those wounded soldiers etched in my mind.

Harris Blackwood is community editor of The Times. His columns appear Wednesdays and Sundays.



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