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Angels in Our Midst

When Vienna residents Marian Chirichella and her husband, Jay Edwards, walked into Walter Reed Army Medical Center in 2003 as Red Cross volunteers, they did not imagine the new direction their lives were about to take. They saw that the Walter Reed medical staff was committed to the physical needs of injured soldiers, but there was little emotional and material support available to the wounded and their families during recovery.

From this realization grew an award-winning program of giving and sharing of time and goods, Angels of Mercy, its arms stretching across the country and into Iraq and Afganistan. It began with Chirichella, president of the American Legion Auxiliary Unit 270 of McLean, in 2003, who joined with Edwards, a retired naval officer, to provide a supplemental service to wounded troops under care at Walter Reed.

"We constantly have our ears to the ground, identifying current needs and projected needs," said Chirichella. "We visit with the wounded every Wednesday at Walter Reed hospital, talking with the soldiers, asking each if there’s anything we can bring or do. We attend to the needs at Fisher Houses as well ... stocking refrigerators, picking up diapers for the babies of the affected families, doing whatever we can to make their stay at Walter Reed more comfortable."

The Angels of Mercy program has garnered local and national praise, winning Paul Newman’s "Newman’s Own" national award as the best program in the nation "Supporting Active Duty Military and Their Families," in 2004. The organization was honored again by "Newman’s Own" in 2005 and 2006 as one of the top 10 volunteer programs in this field. The recognition from the award and the publicity generated by the efforts of the Angels of Mercy have resulted in thousands of dollars in contributions that advance the mission of the program, which is to support the nation’s wounded soldiers.

"THE AVERAGE AGE of the wounded here is 23 years old," said Edwards, commander of American Legion Post 270 of McLean. "Some have young wives and children. It brings out a lot of pride to see these young people who put their lives on the line and how they deal with their injuries.

"Marian and I retired to work eight days a week, and it’s so rewarding. We’ve contributed clothing, CDs, videos, reading matter, snacks ... we listen if they want to talk, we track down requested things. In 2005, we turned our attention to the needs of the children staying at Fisher Houses, as well. The response from the public has been incredible."

This May, Edwards was awarded the 2007 Fairfax County Service Award for Community Leadership, and Chirichella, Fairfax County’s Senior Volunteer award in 2006.

The Angels of Mercy program is based out of the American Legion Post 270 of McLean, and its members, as well as those of the Auxiliary, wrap hundreds of packages and gifts for distribution at Walter Reed and beyond. Angels in Iraq, launched in 2005, ships requested goods to Combat Support Hospitals and remote military locations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Responding to the long-term needs of discharged military, Edwards and Chirichella created the No Soldier Left in Need project, working closely with the Department of Defense.

Tuesdays are spent at Costco where Edwards buys food and dry goods; Wednesday morning, Edwards and Chirichella drop off their purchases at Fisher Houses before heading off to their day at Walter Reed’s medical center, visiting with patients.

Edwards and Chirichella have made contact with more than 5,000 patients at Walter Reed since they began volunteering there four years ago, and they have stayed in touch with some of the patients since they left the hospital.

"It’s a human thing," said Edwards, "learning what they need emotionally and materially. The reunions between wounded and family are very emotional. We don’t let ourselves be brought-down; what we see would never stop us from going on.

"It’s gratifying to know you’re helping, to see the results of what you do."

EDWARDS BROUGHT out this year’s most sought-after football jersey, the Ward 57 T-shirt. Ward 57 is home to the war’s amputees, recovering at Walter Reed, and Edwards, impressed by their enduring spirit, thought they deserved to be a fraternal "football" team.

"It’s the people themselves at Walter Reed that drive us," said Chirichella. "The more people we meet here, the more help we want to give. To see the strength and commitment of the wounded and their families, to feel we have an impact on their recovery, energizes us."

"Marian has so much vitality and is so organized," said fellow Auxiliary member Garnette Dupont. "She really got the Angels of Mercy program off the ground. She and Jay devote so much time and effort to it; it’s wonderful the way they promoted this program. They have brought a great amount of very positive attention to the post. They deserve all the recognition they get."

When soldiers at Walter Reed told Edwards and Chirichella that children in Iraq needed clothes, it spurred the two to action, said Dupont. They organized a children’s clothing drive and bags and bags of children’s clothes were shipped to Iraq shortly thereafter.

The Legion and Auxiliary of Post 270 sponsor programs for school students and are developing means to communicate these programs more effectively to the public. Post 270 sponsors high school students to (Virginia) Boys’ State and Girls’ State every year. The oratorical competition offers monetary prizes, with the local winner advancing to the next level. At the Post 270 facility, the members work in cooperation with both McLean High School and Langley High School in a program for learning-disabled students, teaching them appropriate job skills.

RIGHT NOW, Edwards, Chirichella, Post 270 and its Auxiliary have planned a Memorial Day commemoration to be presented at McLean High School on Monday, May 28, at 12:30 p.m. A bagpiper from the school will play Amazing Grace and a bugler, Taps. The Post’s World War II veterans will be singled out and honored, and outgoing delegate and Post 270 member Vince Callahan will deliver his customary "In Flanders Fields."

"I can’t say enough about the good things Marian and Jay do," said Rita Christopher, vice president of the Auxiliary. "They really look into the needs of the wounded and their families. At Christmastime, they bring gifts and arrange for a chorus to sing Christmas songs. The people at Walter Reed are so grateful for what they do. It’s unbelievable.

"Marian and Jay love what they’re doing. They truly are angels of mercy."