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Serving Up Pancakes and Hope

Arlington VFW Post helps recently injured veterans start a new life.

After finishing off a plate of pancakes smothered in syrup, two eggs and a heap of hashbrowns, Anthony Larson slowly reaches for his crutches, which are resting against the medal- and plaque-adorned wall of VFW Post 3150 in north Arlington.

A set of pins holds together the nine broken bones in the 24-year-old’s foot, which shattered when shrapnel pierced his armored vehicle on a return voyage from Baghdad in October. Before leaving, Larson, 24, wraps his foot to protect it from the bitter cold outside and hobbles over to a glass case to purchase an Operation Iraqi Freedom hat.

Larson, a Minnesota native, was one of a dozen veterans injured in Iraq and Afghanistan who ate breakfast at the VFW Post last Sunday. Twice a month the post provides troops who are recuperating at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, or outpatient facilities in the region, with an opportunity to chat with fellow veterans and community volunteers about their experiences in the war and how they are adjusting to life back home.

For many of the soldiers it is a therapeutic meal, where they can receive advice for how to adapt to living with serious, and in some cases permanent, injuries.

“Here they get a day away from the hospital, get to meet people and know that the community is supporting them,” said J. Gary Wagner, a commander at the post. “We give them a laugh or a smile for a few minutes.”

For years the post has conducted Sunday breakfast sessions for Arlington veterans. In October 2004 they began inviting injured soldiers from Walter Reed, and now between five and 50 troops attended each time.

Some of the soldiers are capable of driving themselves from the outpatient houses where they are recovering. Most are driven from Walter Reed or other locations by volunteers.

Once a month, Bob, a volunteer from New York who declined to give his last name, drives more than 1,000 miles from Niagara Falls to participate in the post’s breakfast activities. Last Sunday he transported Larson and Kevin Johnson, who were stationed together in as part of the same unit of the Minnesota National Guard, from their outpatient facilities.

“The newly injured have no idea how dramatically their lives have been changed,” said Bob, who was shot during a tour of duty in Vietnam. “They need all the help they can get making the right decisions.”

AFTER DROPPING OFF several Iraqi prisoners in Baghdad in October, Specialist Larson, a mechanic and maintenance support personnel, was on his way back to Camp Speicher outside Tikrit when an IED exploded across the road from his armored vehicle.

Shrapnel penetrated through the thick armor of the car, zipped through his right foot and lodged in his thigh. Larson considers himself lucky, though.

“If I had been leaning forward six inches, the shrapnel would have gone through my head,” he said.

Spending more than a month at Walter Reed, Larson was discharged to an outpatient facility at the end of November. After returning home to Minnesota for Christmas, Larson will undergo reconstructive surgery.

Doctors have given him a mixed prognosis. There is a good chance he will make a full recovery and be able to walk normally. But the possibility of amputation remains.

He has begun intensive physical therapy, but still has to use a wheelchair to get around most days. Despite the pain and uncertainty, Larson, a volunteer fire fighter and cabinet maker before the war, retains a sunny disposition and said right now he is just concentrating on his Christmas homecoming.

“I feel blessed at the holidays this year,” Larson. “American society has realized what we are putting on the line everyday and is giving us the support we need. “

Johnson interrupts his friend, after devouring a piece of bacon, “The kindness we have seen here has been incredible.” Johnson suffered a severe back injury when a missile hit close to where he was guarding Camp Speicher. Though there was no nerve damage, Johnson said it is unlikely he will ever fully recover.

BY 11 A.M. The mess room of the post is nearly full, and Duval Diaz is finishing his fifth coffee of the morning. For more than a year the veteran has been coming to the post for the breakfasts.

“I’ve never met people so friendly,” said Diaz, who injured his back during an incident near Kandahar, Afghanistan. “I’m treated like part of the family here. And it’s good food.”

Diaz said he continues to frequent the post for more than just the lively conversation. For him it is a diversion from the monotony of living in Walter Reed.

“I forget my problems and the situation I’m in,” Diaz said. “They say, ‘you still have hope.’”

For Cathy Kearns, volunteering at the post is more than just a way to aid and honor the soldiers who serve our county. Her son is stationed in Iraq, and each injured young man who comes through the door for a meal reminds her of what could befall her son.

“It’s heart wrenching to see these boys,” said Kearns. “I just pray and hope our son comes back.”