By Donald Wittkowski
Most Americans probably don’t know that Baqubah is a city in Iraq. Quite possibly, they’ve never even heard of it.
But Sean Lewis is all too aware that Baqubah was the scene of some of the fiercest fighting between the U.S. military and the al-Qaida terrorist network during the Iraq war.
While serving as an Army sergeant in Baqubah, Lewis had his right leg blown off and suffered brain damage when a mortar shell exploded near him on Jan. 21, 2004. Two of his fellow soldiers were killed in the attack.
“They were two of my closest friends,” Lewis recalled of Gabriel Palacios and David Parker.
Lewis paid tribute to his friends, “Gabe and Dave,” as he called them, while joining with hundreds of other people Saturday morning during the ninth annual Walk for the Wounded charity event on the Ocean City Boardwalk.
Despite the somber tones, the event was filled with inspirational moments. Wounded veterans talked of how they have rebuilt their lives, started families, continued their education and extended a helping hand to others suffering from the emotional and physical scars of war.
Lewis, 33, of Indianapolis, Ind., retired from the military in 2006 and is currently a full-time student just one semester short of earning a degree in music education from Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. He hopes to become a music teacher.
“My goal is to bring college-level music appreciation to the high school or middle school level,” he said.
Lewis, accompanied by his girlfriend, Raissa Ross, used a pair of crutches to make his way down the Boardwalk during the three-mile charity walk.
“At first, it was a little difficult,” he said of the trauma of losing his leg. “Then you find ways to cope with it and live the rest of your life.”
Saturday was not the first time Lewis had been in Ocean City. He recalled how he and another soldier would sometimes slip out of Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, D.C., where they were both receiving treatment for their severe wounds, to visit Ocean City. The side trips gave them a reprieve from the emotional and physical stress of the hospital.
“I have lots of fond memories of being here in Ocean City,” Lewis said.
Before he began walking, Lewis addressed the crowd on the Boardwalk to talk about the importance of Operation First Response, a nonprofit organization that helps wounded veterans in need of assistance while making the transition from the military to civilian life.
Money raised from the Walk for the Wounded goes to support Operation First Response. Steve Brady, vice chairman of OceanFirst Bank, the principal sponsor of the event, said the Walk for the Wounded has raised more than $600,000 since its inception in 2009.
Peggy Baker, chief executive officer of Operation First Response, told the crowd that her organization has helped more than 8,000 military families.
“What greater gift can we give our freedom fighters than a place of honor?” she said.
During her remarks, Baker waded into an ongoing controversy by criticizing the NFL players who have been staging protests by kneeling during the playing of the national anthem. She said the protests are disrespectful toward the American flag and “it hurts me to the core.”
Another wounded veteran who participated in the walk was Joshua Ferguson, who lost his left leg in an explosion on April 27, 2007.
The 40-year-old Ferguson, who lives in Dickson, Tenn., was an Army sergeant serving in Iraq when a roadside bomb tore through his Humvee military vehicle.
“Most of the time, an explosion like that would kill four or five of the guys in the vehicle, but in this case, we all lived,” he said.
Ferguson’s leg was amputated up to the thigh, requiring him to use a curved, blade-like prosthetic leg made of carbon fiber and similar to the ones worn by former South African Olympic runner Oscar Pistorius.
Now retired from the Army, Ferguson relies on humor and art therapy to help him cope with the emotional and physical ordeal of his wounds.
Ferguson is a Little League coach. His baseball uniform has the number 5 and the word “Toes” on it instead of his name – a reference to all of the toes he lost on his amputated leg.
Moreover, the license plate on his car says “Peg Leg,” he noted with a laugh.
“I try to find the humor in things,” Ferguson said. “This is one of the ways I deal with my wounds.”