During the stay at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland (WRNMMC), we saw and interacted with several non-profit organizations. These non-profits help patients and family members with meals, blankets, t-shirts, toiletries, spa days, etc. They are invaluable.
One group that stood out is Operation Ward 57 (OPW57).
OPW57 was started in 2006 by Scott Cameron and Deborah Semer. Sgt Cameron, an LVN, had been transferred to Walter Reed Army Medical Center (WRAMC) from Ft. Lewis. Within minutes of arrival, they saw a need. Two of the nurses had made "Ward 57" t-shirts for the patients, LTs Steve Scuba and Kevin Jones, to celebrate the “team spirit” of the guys on the ward. Cameron and Semer took the t-shirt idea and ran with it. Within months, they began to see more need, and more ways they could be helpful.
One of their first actions was to obtain Seattle Seahawks merchandise for a young man from Seattle in order to raise his spirits.
In February 2007, an outpatient housing scandal hit the news and hospital morale dropped markedly. Operation Ward 57 (named after the amputee ward at WRAMC – Ward 57) partnered with the Think Big Foundation to recreate the t-shirts and raise money for things that were needed on the ward. As of August 2010, OPW57 obtained non-profit status.
Today, OPW57 is invaluable to patients and families. After the merger of WRAMC and National Naval Medical Center into WRNMMC, volunteers continued to visit the ICU and the “new” Ward 57, 4-center and 4-east, in order to lift morale, offer support, and deliver much needed items to staff, patients, and family members. A big hit are the comfortable, warm blankets boasting the OPW57 logo.
The face of OPW57 that most of us know is Laura Boone. Laura is an upbeat, peppy, beautiful red head with a never quit attitude. She has been involved since 2008 when she met Cameron and Semer at M3 Fest (80’s bands). Cameron and Semer were at the Fest selling OPW57 t-shirts and raising awareness for their cause. OPW57 had taken guys from WRAMC to the concert.
Laura became involved and is now the volunteer coordinator. In addition to her “day job” as the manager of a shoe store, she trains and scouts volunteers, sets up events, and does the ward visits. She has taken wounded and family members out to lunch, delivered a craving (rolls with butter, Thai food, Burger King, etc.), and brought items needed by patents, family and staff.
OPW57, along with other non-profit organizations, decided that caregivers deserved something special. Beginning in February 2012, Laura, along with other volunteers, started monthly deliveries of items to the guys on the ward to give to their caregivers to show their appreciation. In February, several women got together to create Valentine’s Day baskets. In March, Georgetown Cupcake offered a discount on their product so that St. Patrick’s Day cupcakes could be delivered not only to patients and family members, but the staff, as well. In April, Easter Baskets were delivered. They are also presently working on “arrival baskets” for new caregivers.
Another amazing young woman who makes things happen at OPW57 is Brittany Hamilton.
Brittany started as a volunteer in 2007. She felt helpless with the war, and she had a desire to help and make a difference. She stated, “I didn't have a ton of money to donate. I didn't feel I had any ‘talents’ to volunteer. I just had a desire to help, but didn't know how.”
The moment that changed her life was in 2007 when she went to support a friend’s band who were doing a screening of a reality series, and they were wearing OPW57 t-shirts. She was asked to buy a shirt in support of the wounded, and then the mission of OPW57 was explained. “I knew this was my opportunity to do a small gesture yet make a big impact.” She not only purchased a shirt, she became a volunteer.
Brittany, an Army wife, asked herself, “How could I, a simple girl from a small island in Washington State, make a difference to a soldier or a soldier’s family? The answer was simple. Reach out and connect.” After handling the administrative side for 4 years, she took over the Director position in 2011. “I have not looked back!” In addition to her “day job” at the Seattle VA Hospital researching mental health and addictions in the Center of Excellence in Substance Abuse Treatment and Education (CESATE), Brittany handles all the inventory, all the shipping/receiving, the administrative duties, the scheduling of the events, networking, book keeping, etc.
Some of the events include concerts and meet and greets (such as with Sarah McLaughlin in July 2010). These concerts include Shinedown, Tesla, Daughtry, Dirks Bentley, Josh Grayson, and Rodney Atkins. At WRAMC, Clint Black sat on a stool and played on the ward.
Each year, OPW57 delivers and decorates a Christmas tree for the ward, and sponsors a Christmas party for the wounded, the staff, and the families. Before the closing of WRAMC, they held a Luau.
One of Brittany’s favorite moments happened in 2009 while at WRAMC for the Holiday Cheer Party. She describes the event as follows:
“One soldier had just arrived at the hospital just days before. His mother, with just hours’ notice, had boarded a plane, with nothing but a small bag of belongings, in order to get as quickly as she could to her injured son. In the rush to get to the plane she had grabbed her camera, but left the SD card. She stood in the hospital in a panic. She dearly wanted to photograph these moments, to photograph her son, who although badly injured, was alive and with her. She wanted her camera in order to pass photos on to concerned friends and families. But she barely had any money and could not find a store that sold an SD card anywhere in the immediate vicinity of the hospital. It was after hours. She had no vehicle. She felt like a stranger in a foreign country. Her heart was so heavy with worry about her son, this just added to her struggle. It was the last worry she needed to have. As the powers would be, it happened to be that morning I had just bought an SD card to give one of my volunteers. The card sat in my pocket. When someone told me of this mother's need I could not help but smile. I pulled her aside and pulled out the SD card and slipped it in her hand. She wept. Tears of relief combined with tears of sorrow. She hugged me so tight. Then she left the room. Minutes later, her son, bandaged and using his IV pole as almost a crutch, came in. He hugged me and thanked me. That was all I needed. Something so simple, an SD card, made such a difference in the welfare of this family. That's when I knew...it's the little things we can do to help. It doesn't have to be a grand gesture, it just has to be a sincere one.”
When Laura was asked why she does this, she looked down at the floor for a few minutes. The usually smiling, full of life young woman became very pensive and quietly said, “Everybody should. You find these guys who lost all these limbs and they have a better attitude than you do, and you need to man up. I wouldn’t change it. I do not want to do anything else.”
Laura continued by stating that the misconception is that WRNMMC is a gloomy, drab, depressing place. She laughed and said, “These guys have a sick and twisted sense of humor. It is not depressing. Magic happens here.”
Brittany thinks everyone needs to know what happens in our vet hospitals. “I have always said if every citizen of this country could walk the halls at Walter Reed just one time, they would never be the same. I believe it's our responsibility, our duty to take care of these wounded, their families and the medical staff that care for them. They have sacrificed enough. They should not want for anything.”
Brittany adds, “We are 100% volunteer driven. We could not survive without the support of our volunteer team.” To volunteer your time, money, whatever you can, visit their website at www.operationward57.org.