The young airman and the old soldier sit onstage, separated by an empty chair, along with six decades of American military history and half a lifetime of living.
Together they listen as the former adjutant general of Nebraska's National Guard praises them. Together they await the moment when U.S. Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., will pin a long overdue honor onto their lapels.
Capt. James George sits on the right, wearing a gray suit that feels a little uncomfortable. He props his cane on his chair and watches through thick glasses as his wife, Robyn, takes part in a duet singing the national anthem.
George, the young airman, is here because Saddam Hussein's army ambushed his convoy on a desert road in Iraq in April 2003. He is here because of the headaches and the memory loss and the vertigo that followed.
He is here because the military is finally getting around to recognizing traumatic brain injuries — often called the signature injury of the post-9/11 wars — as a wound deserving of a Purple Heart.
“For a long time, I wasn't injured ... I was just hurt,” George says. “No one thought about (the Purple Heart). I didn't even think about it.”
Pfc. Victor Mashbein sits on the left, wearing his black suit like a glove. Before the ceremony, he pinballs around the room like a man half his 87 years.
He hugs relatives who have flown in from California. He hugs old friends. He hugs strangers.
He is here because Adolf Hitler's army got him twice — once just after D-Day and again during the Battle of the Bulge — during World War II.
He is here because, in 1944, the Army gave him one Purple Heart but forgot the second.
He is here thanks to a Herculean effort from a Disabled American Veterans service officer who worked for three years to get Mashbein the second Purple Heart he deserved.
“I've become a celebrity!” Mashbein says, mentioning the dozens of residents of his retirement home who traveled together to watch the ceremony. “I think I get a second cup of coffee today.”
George and Mashbein listen as retired Gen. Roger Lempke, now Johanns' military affairs director, tells the 100-person crowd in the Boys Town auditorium about the Purple Heart's significance, how a general named George Washington came up with the idea, how you have to be injured in combat before you can wear it.
They watch as Johanns gives a short speech praising them and says, “OK, it's medal time.”
Mashbein goes first.
He doesn't even remember how he got his first Purple Heart — he joked that an officer maybe threw it on his hospital bed while he lay wounded.
He does remember that, after the war, when he moved to Council Bluffs and got married and became a sales rep and traveled all over the country, he kept a copy of his Army discharge papers in his wallet wherever he went.
Every decade or so, when he got a new wallet, he'd pull out the papers and think about the second Purple Heart he never did get. He'd put the papers in his new wallet and forget about it for another decade.
Then, three years ago, Mashbein found a DAV country service representative named Betty Albanez. It's Albanez's job — her honor, she says — to help any veteran who walks into her office asking a question about health benefits or needing a ride to the doctor or wondering about a long-overdue combat medal.
She called newspapers from Mashbein's hometown, searching for old stories that discussed his injuries. She called Johanns' office and got Lempke onboard. Together they filled out mountains of paperwork.
Finally, on Tuesday afternoon, Johanns pins a Purple Heart, and then a Bronze Star, and then a Combat Infantryman Badge onto Mashbein's suit. The Army had searched its records and realized that the old soldier deserved all three.
“How does this feel?” he is asked.
“Most wonderful day I've had in my life,” Mashbein says and flashes a 10,000-megawatt smile.
George is next.
The weather first fascinated him in grade school — studying the different cloud formations is the only thing he remembers from sixth-grade science.
So when he wanted a stable job, a good way to provide for himself and his then-fiancee Robyn, he decided to join the Air Force Weather Agency.
He was in officer training school, watching a video on air power during the Vietnam War, when the first plane struck the World Trade Center.
By 2002, he was in Afghanistan, a weather forecaster and planner stationed at the Kandahar Air Base.
And by 2003, he was in Iraq, attached to the 101st Airborne and driving through highly volatile regions of the country just days after the U.S. Marines had first routed most of Saddam's forces.
On April 15, Tax Day 2003, he served as a side gunner in a small convoy planning to make a 20-hour drive across Iraq. They were five hours from their destination when “everything went haywire,” George says.
First, Saddam loyalists ambushed the convoy as it drove down a path boxed in by sand dunes on either side.
Then, under heavy fire, the driver of his Humvee lost control and headed straight for a sand dune.
The next thing George remembers, he woke up.
He had been passed out for minutes. A fellow airman was asking him, “Are you OK?”
At first, George thought he was. Just a bonk on the head. Nothing serious.
But then the days of headaches turned into weeks of headaches. He started having trouble remembering details. The deployment ended, but George's problems didn't.
His entire left side went numb. He couldn't walk without a cane. He struggled with pain in his head, neck and back and struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder, too.
A military doctor diagnosed a serious spinal cord injury, as well as a traumatic brain injury.
But it wasn't until 2010, when he was medically retired, that George began to think about the Purple Heart.
After all, he'd been injured in combat. What did it matter if it was his leg, his arm or his head?
So he stands with help from his cane, and Johanns pins a Purple Heart on his suit jacket, too.
The crowd gives George and Mashbein a round of applause, and another round of applause, and another.
Afterward, they stand side by side in a hallway.
George motions to Mashbein.
“It was a real privilege meeting this guy,” he says. “My generation, we talked about these guys, we saw them in the movies. ... These guys were our heroes.”
Mashbein nods toward George.
“This is a wonderful, wonderful country,” he says. “And these (Iraq and Afghan vets) today, they deserve everything we can give them.”
In minutes, George will leave quietly with his wife. Mashbein will linger, taking photos and giving out more hugs. The young airman and the old soldier might never see one another again.
But, as they stand together, none of that matters, they think. The new medals pinned to their chests bind them like brothers.
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