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thedrifter
04-07-06, 08:23 AM
April 7, 2006, 4:08AM
Injured soldiers get a big welcome
More than 300 greet veterans in Galveston for a weekend of fun

By KEVIN MORAN
Houston Chronicle

GALVESTON - On Nov. 9, Marine Lance Cpl. Patrick Myers was in Iraq near the Syrian border when the road exploded under the Humvee he was driving.

Shrapnel from an anti-tank mine ripped off his legs above the knees and injured four other Marines.

On Thursday, Myers, 19, of Dallas, was in a civilian convoy on a much more friendly road.

He and a dozen other wounded military men and women were just rolling into Galveston off Interstate 45 when a cadre of police patrol cars and motorcycles swept around their vehicles, turned on their sirens and gave them a presidential-style escort to a beachfront hotel.

As the caravan from San Antonio turned in to the Holiday Inn Sunspree Resort from 17th, Myers and his comrades — more than half of them missing limbs — were stunned to find more than 300 people waiting, waving flags and welcome signs and cheering them as if they had just won the World Series.

"I was shocked," Myers said after an emotional ceremony during which local politicians, students, veterans, police and citizens cheered every time another speaker said "Welcome home" to the injured young warriors.

"It really means a lot to me," he said. "It means a lot to all of us."

There was joy that the young soldiers were still able to come to Galveston for a weekend of fun, seafood, a drum fishing tournament and other activities.

The surprise at the rowdy welcome was evident on the face of Marine Lance Cpl. Oyoana Allende, of Chicago, as well.

"This is great," said Allende, still bearing some scars on her face from second-degree burns and wearing black pressure bandages on both hands to help reduce scarring from third-degree burns.

Triggering emotions
She was wounded when a suicide bomber carried out his mission near her in Fallujah, Iraq, on June 23, 2005.

"I wasn't expecting anything like this. We didn't know about (the surprise greeting)."

The event triggered many emotions.

People were saddened by the injuries for which Myers, Allende and their fellow outpatients from Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio still are being treated. There was pride that the welcome came off so well.

And there was a strong feeling of satisfaction among many Vietnam War veterans in the crowd who turned out to help welcome the victims of the nation's current war. These veterans still remember that the American public staged few public welcomes such as Thursday's when military people returned from the unpopular Southeast Asian war in the 1960s and 1970s.

Showing respect
"We're glad to do this because this is something we didn't have when we came home," said Robert Rodriguez, a Galvestonian and an Army veteran who, along with three of his brothers, served in the Vietnam War.

"My wife and baby welcomed me home at the Houston airport. It was a different story then. Now, we like to honor and respect the veterans who served our country and give them the respect they deserve."

The Galveston trip is one of many for wounded military members organized in the past two years by a group called Operation Comfort.

It was founded by American Airlines flight attendant Janis Roznowski, of Austin, who worked on flights taking new troops to Iraq and Afghanistan and ended up visiting those troops in hospitals.

She also worked on flights that brought some of the same troops home to be treated at Brooke Army Medical Center. Today, the service members will take a tour of the NASA facility.

Galveston shows heart
Roznowski was delighted at having pulled off the surprise welcome to Galveston for the first group ever brought to the island by Operation Comfort.

"The people of Galveston have a really big, big heart," Roznowski said.

"They're people of soul and they have a great respect for our men and women in uniform."

Besides arranging golf, bicycling and beach and fishing outings for the wounded veterans, Operation Comfort helps redecorate and refurnish waiting rooms and living facilities for families of the wounded being treated in San Antonio, Roznowski said.

"We've raised about $159,000 and all of it went to them," she said, referring to the service members.

Myers and others who lost limbs in the Middle East are making quick but painful, stressful recoveries. Myers has been fitted with prosthetic legs and has worn them while using crutches. But more work was needed.

"I had surgery on March 6, but there were a lot of complications," he said. "I should be walking again on crutches (with the prosthetic legs) in about two weeks."

Meanwhile, Myers said he plans to enjoy fishing in the Gulf of Mexico this weekend.

"I've never been drum fishing," he said. "But my family used to come down here two or three times a year when I was a kid."

kevin.moran@chron.com

Ellie