The bus carrying Cody Stanton and other wounded soldiers breezed up Interstate 95 on Tuesday to the site of the former World Trade Center in New York, with an escort arranged by Baltimore's police commissioner.
The side door opened, and Stanton, who lost his legs and two fingers in an explosion in Afghanistan, was lowered on his wheelchair. More than one hundred construction workers were protesting working conditions at the site, but when they saw the soldiers, they suddenly broke into a thunderous applause, chanting "USA! USA!"
This was more than Stanton had in mind when he signed up to take in a taping of "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon," but Commissioner Frederick H Bealefeld III had even bigger plans for the trip.
Bealefeld, who within the next few days will doff his police uniform after a career of 31 years, including five at the helm of one of the nation's largest police departments, has been quietly organizing trips for wounded warriors for the past three years.
Last year, he and his chief spokesman, Anthony Guglielmi, decided to take it up a notch, organizing a trip to New York. The Pentagon and a nonprofit called Operation Homefront cover the expenses.
"You learn about the real core notions of camaraderie and patriotism and sacrifices. You come away with a different perspective about what's important in life, and the meaning of friends and family," said Bealefeld, who has previously declined to discuss the trips.
Bealefeld has said one of the major factors in his decision to retire was a desire to spend time with his family.
The trips, he said, are a small way to give back to those who have made sacrifices for their country. On Tuesday, the troops rode on a chartered bus from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda in a police motorcade made up of officers from the Baltimore City, Baltimore County, U.S. Park Police and Montgomery County Police departments.
"We want to impress them with the VIP treatment," Bealefeld said. "They're heroic in our eyes, but they don't think of themselves as the guy who gets the motorcycle escort. The small stuff matters."
There's a personal connection for Bealefeld as well: His son left his studies at the University of Delaware to become a Marine. Frederick H. Bealefeld IV is now stationed in Florida.
Bealefeld said he and his wife, Linda, fought with their son about joining the military, urging him to complete his college studies first. But one day Bealefeld found himself cleaning his son's room and flipping through a journal, where he read his son's writings about feeling guilty that he was partying at college while others were making a sacrifice for their country. That was a turning point in the family's acceptance of his choice, Bealefeld said.
His son is about the same age as Stanton, a Raleigh, N.C., native who joined the Army at age 18 after walking into a recruiting station. His company, the 21st Military Police Company Airborne, had been in Kandahar for about a month and he was walking a foot patrol, breaking off his position as a gunner for the first time. His squad went off course and found themselves under enemy fire.
"I had a view of them, all lined up like a movie, firing [rocket-propelled grenades]," he recalls.
Stanton remembers feeling no pain as his body hurtled through the air and landed. One of his first thoughts was to reassure his fellow soldiers that he was alive. "I'm good, Sarge," he said, talking himself out of shock. "I'm coherent. I'm awake."
Stanton's path forward will be difficult, but he is upbeat. He wears a shirt that reads, "Wounded Warrior — Some Assembly Required," and his mother is chronicling his recovery online. He's been at Walter Reed for only a few months, but has received a Purple Heart from President Barack Obama, met several members of Congress and most of the Supreme Court justices (he had them sign a shirt).
He's purchased a car that will be specially tailored for him to operate, and a custom house is also planned for him in his hometown. He speaks eagerly about various grants and programs.
"It's hard to be bitter when you get to Walter Reed and see people with way worse injuries," he said. "You'd have to be extremely selfish to be bitter."
There are various trips and programs arranged for wounded troops, who can flip through a book and sign up themselves and their relatives. William P. McFadden, chairman of the board of directors for Operation Homefront, a group that supports service members and their families, said Baltimore's efforts are "one of the most, impressive, dramatic programs."
Maj. Dennis Smith, the commander for the Baltimore's Central District, said there's a bond among police, firefighters and members of the military. Smith, who served in the Marines for four years, estimates that about 30 percent of his officers are currently or were formerly involved in the military.
"Everyone that serves, whether it's here or there, you're linked," said Sgt. Rodrigo Santos, 32, who said he suffered injuries to his back, pelvis, and legs in addition to a traumatic brain injury but walked through the World Trade Center memorial with his girlfriend, Andrea, with a robotic left leg. The New York City native who now lives in Silver Spring has been at Walter Reed since October 2010.
Service members "engage in the military because they wanted to serve. I just thought, that ought to be the baseline for everybody that wants to be in the BPD," Bealefeld said.
As commissioner, Bealefeld sought to emphasize pride and training. Unlike some past commissioners, he wore his uniform at all times — never a suit — to emphasize its importance. For his Diamond Standard Training — an unprecedented effort that sends entire shifts of officers to train together for 30 days at a time — the principles were drawn in part from military philosophy, and guest speakers included a decorated Navy SEAL.
During the bus ride, Bealefeld talked to McFadden and the special agent in charge of the FBI's Baltimore field division, Richard McFeely, about his post-retirement plans. He's planning several trips and is undecided about what his next move might be. He related a story about a Marine he once visited who lost his limbs but made sure to shave before accepting visitors, something carried over from his routine in overseas.
"It's so firmly embedded in who they are," Bealefeld said. "I started here [with the Baltimore Police Department] when I was 18 years old. I feel like it's who I am, and that's going to be the most difficult part of the separation."
Most of those aboard the bus thought they only were taking a trip to see "Late Night." But the New York Police Department doesn't shut down the Holland Tunnel for every group headed into the city for a show. The visit also included a private lunch at Tribeca Grill, a restaurant co-owned by the actor Robert de Niro.
At Ground Zero, after the show of thanks from the union workers and other tourists who rushed to see what the commotion was about, the group was whisked into the park where the World Trade Center towers once stood. New buildings being constructed there, and a massive fountain, etched with the names of the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks, lies where the north tower once stood.
Stanton and his mother, Nancy, were moved beyond words by the spectacle. Later, Stanton, who had never visited New York and never driven north of Baltimore before Tuesday, said it was "overwhelming to see firsthand one of the reasons I fought."
"It makes me feel like my injuries are worth something," he said.