FORT BRAGG, N.C.- The annual convention held by the 82nd Airborne Division Association, the largest veterans organization for paratroopers, is typically an opportunity to reunite with old friends, reminisce, and have a few laughs. But at the convention two years ago, an 82nd veteran named Carl Bludau threw down a challenge that was no laughing matter.
Bludau wanted the Association to do more for paratroopers wounded in the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"I said what we need to be doing is bringing our wounded to the convention," said Bludau, an outspoken Texan who was himself wounded in action in Vietnam.
The seed that was planted that day bore fruit on August 19, when dozens of recent Purple Heart recipients from the 82nd arrived in Indianapolis to attend the Association's 63rd National Convention, their plane tickets, hotel rooms, and other incidentals bought and paid for completely by Association members. All told, 42 wounded Soldiers attended the convention this year, thanks to the work of Bludau and other members of the 82nd Association's Wounded Warriors Program.
The money to sponsor the troopers was contributed by members of the Association's roughly 100 chapters spread across the U.S., and even from a veterans group in Germany, said Bill Eberle, the National Director of the Wounded Warrior Program.
The recipients of the Association's generosity ranged from troopers who had been wounded and later returned to active duty with their units, to double amputees who will need life-long care and rehabilitation for their wounds. Regardless of their injuries, all received a hero's welcome when they arrived at Indianapolis Airport, where they were met by a color guard and hugs and applause from the welcoming committee.
It was a stark contrast to the reception many Association members from the Vietnam era received when they came home.
"You'd get booed walking through the airport," recalled Eberle.
Many of those involved in the project were motivated by a desire to ensure that today's generation of war veterans receive better treatment.
"We recall our experience, and we want to make sure that these kids are recognized," said Eberle.
That commitment was appreciated by the wounded troopers who made the trip out to Indianapolis.
"I'm extremely grateful and humbled by the veterans," said Spc. Marcus McGrew, of Battery A, 3rd Battalion, 321st Field Artillery Regiment. McGrew suffers from nerve damage after being injured by a suicide bomber in Afghanistan in 2008.
"I know it takes a lot of effort to arrange all this, and that's on top of the effort they already gave with their service," McGrew said.
In Bludau's mind, however, the effort and expense that went into bringing the wounded troopers to the convention was never a burden to bear. It was a charge to keep.
"We are supposed to take care of our own, and they are ours," Bludau said.