By Fred W. Baker III, American Forces Press ServiceMay 29, 2007
WASHINGTON (American Forces Press Service, May 28, 2007) - Seven months ago, on Veterans Day, Spc. Jace Badia was carried off the battlefield in Ramadi after an insurgent bomb left him nearly dead -- his left leg gone, his right leg shattered and his right arm and back broken.
A testament to the will of today's warriors and the miracles of 21st century combat medicine, Spc. Badia today joined a handful of other wounded Soldiers being carried down historic Constitution Avenue, just blocks from the nation's Capitol, on the Grand Marshal's float in the National Memorial Day Parade.
With thousands of onlookers cheering, Spc. Badia joined eight other Wounded Warriors and Hollywood star Gary Sinise to lead the parade. Five rode in the lead float and two followed in a Hummer.
"I never in a million years thought I'd even be in a parade," said Spc. Badia. "I'm really glad I can be out here and able to show the people that, even though I'm injured, I'm still fighting in spirit."
As his red-white-and-blue float, sporting a golden American eagle, rolled down the 10-block route, Spc. Badia said he had one person specifically in mind - his friend and fellow infantryman, Cpl. Eric Palaciosrivera, who was killed by insurgent sniper fire three days after Spc. Badia was injured.
"I think about him every day. He was just a really good guy," Spc. Badia said.
Spc. Badia also said he thinks about "every single serviceman who has served and died for our country."
His message to those still serving is simple.
"Keep fighting. It's for a good cause - freedom," he said.
In its second year, the parade drew more than 150,000 spectators. This year's official estimates are not yet released. The parade included 160 elements, including 20 bands, youth groups, and veterans groups from every conflict since World War I. It is sponsored by the American Veterans Center, in association with the White House Commission on Remembrance.
Spc. Badia was joined on the float by Leslie Smith, a former Army National Guard captain. She developed a blood clot while deployed and lost her left leg and sight in her left eye.
Now Ms. Smith is trained as a peer visitor at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and is active in encouraging wounded Soldiers to get involved in sports programs.
Since losing her leg, Ms. Smith has completed four marathons, is a tri-athlete and enjoys kayaking and scuba diving. Most are sports that she didn't turn to until after her injuries, she said.
"It just really turns your life around and makes you want to get out there and do more and challenge yourself," Ms. Smith said.
Now, Ms. Smith is temporarily assigned to the president's commission on care for America's returning wounded warriors. She said being able to lead the parade is an honor for her and the others.
"It makes you feel very proud of yourself and service," Ms. Smith said.
But, she said, it is still the personal demonstrations of gratitude that mean the most for the servicemembers.
"It means the world for the Soldiers coming back for anyone on the street ... if they stop and give you a personal thank you," Ms. Smith said. "That really seems to touch our hearts because we know that we are fighting for America and America's freedom, and we just hope that everybody knows that we're doing it 100 percent."
Leading the efforts to recruit volunteers to ride in the parade was fellow wounded warrior Army Capt. D.J. Skelton. He lost his left eye and suffered other injuries while serving as a platoon leader in the second battle for Fallujah in 2004.
Capt. Skelton serves as a military advisor to the Deputy Defense Secretary and is helping rewrite policy on how the military manages its wounded servicemembers.
"The ultimate sacrifice is to give one's life. Right under that is this population," he said. "Their life is forever changed. For the rest of their life they will forever be reminded -- every time they look into a mirror -- of the sacrifice they made for their country.
"They truly need truly America's support," Capt. Skelton said. "When you look at them, you are forced to be reminded of this amazing group ... who allows us to live in a safe democracy.
Capt. Skelton said the appreciation shown to the Soldiers demonstrates that their sacrifices were not in vain.
"It means a lot to know that America is still engaged and still cares and still recognizes that we sacrificed for something -- the greater good," Capt. Skelton said.
The Soldiers serving as Grand Marshal's of the parade were: Army Capts. D.J. Skelton and (retired) Leslie Smith, Staff Sgt. John Borders, Sgt. Ron Hawthorne, Cpl. John Callahan and Spcs. Jace Badia, Luke Markham and Robert Schubert.