For a group of 73 soldiers and Marines, the old-fashioned paddle-wheeler in Baltimore's harbor yesterday was a welcome change of scene from Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where they are being treated for wounds they suffered in Iraq.
Some are learning to live without limbs, others are coping with haunting memories and all are working to reconfigure their lives. But for a few hours, they enjoyed the respite of a field trip to the waterfront 35 miles from the Washington medical campus.
"It takes them outside the hospital, the mundane aches and woes, the daily hearing of bad news," said Sgt. Charles B. Bruns, 32, a member of the center's medical staff. "It can make them think of things to come, not things that have passed."
Patients, some aided by canes or wheelchairs, made their way from their bus to board the Black-Eyed Susan, docked at the Broadway Pier at Fells Point. A few women, pale in the sun, wore shawls. Others walked with prosthetic legs. Some were accompanied by relatives.
Sgt. Timothy Brown of Newark, N.J., a broad-shouldered soldier with a leg injury, proudly said he regained his physique with 4:30 a.m. gym workouts.
"Every day I pray to God," Brown, a patient who helped lead the group, said. "And I cut up and have fun, joke everywhere I go."
Each was greeted by Leonard Schleider, the boat owner and a former Marine, who volunteered for the third time in three years to invite military patients for a cruise around the harbor. The event was organized by the nonprofit Wounded Warrior Project, which assists thousands of injured military personnel making transitions to hospital and civilian life.
More than 22,000 members of the U.S. military have been wounded in Iraq, according to the latest Pentagon posted reports.
Re-entry into the civilian work force is complicated, even for those who have held steady jobs for years, like Army reservist Alexander Ellerbe, 52, of Cheraw, S.C., who served in the military police.
"I set up machinery for a plant, with a lot of lifting I cannot do anymore," he said yesterday. "It is up to them [his employers] whether to take me back."
The medical center is known for treating psychological war wounds as well, which some on the boat discussed with disarming candor. Talking about their nightmares, they agreed, was the key to progress.
Spc. Sarina Shannon, 26, of Portland, Ore., said she has suffered post-traumatic stress symptoms for three years, including going without sleep for days.
"I can sleep for an hour at a time now," she said. "I will never get over it, but they teach you how to cope."
The catalyst for her illness, she said, was an Iraqi civilian casualty she accidentally caused: "I ran over a 6-year-old girl in my field truck."
A former Marine, Kevin Blanchard, 24, of Arlington, Va., acted as a "peer visitor," offering practical advice as part of the Wounded Warriors program. "I was in a wheelchair for six months, and I say that I lost a leg, too," he said. "I know how that feels."
He encourages patients to set goals for the next year. "It [an injury] gives you a completely different life, but it can be a better life if you make it that way." Blanchard is attending George Washington University, something he said he would not have done otherwise.
For a mother whose 24-year-old son lost his legs in a Baghdad roadside bomb last month, the camaraderie of the soldiers on the boat was a godsend, even if her son could not make the trip.
"I needed to come," Linda Cope of Panama City, Fla., said as the boat glided past Fort McHenry. "It helps us get through this strain. When a soldier goes to war, a whole family goes to war."
"We are the cushion, but people need to realize you need a lot of help from the community," Cope said, adding that she screamed when she heard "they had to take his legs."
She said her son, Joshua Cope, who was awarded two Purple Heart medals, was lucky to escape a Humvee explosion with his life. But seeing him maimed and immobilized next to his young wife and son at the medical center was overwhelming. As she circulated with her sister on the boat after a buffet lunch, she said she appreciated the chance to take a breather from the family vigil.
Anthony Claggett, a truck driver who lives in Washington, sat at a table with his 20-year-old son, Army Spc. Isiah K. Hall, his daughter-in-law, Jennifer, and three young grandchildren. "Seeing his friends get hurt, it took a toll," Claggett said of his son, recently returned from Iraq.
"When you are way across the water, overseas, it limits your ability to do something," he said. "No hand to hold, no shoulder to cry on."