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Wounded warriors get red carpet treatment

They came with canes, crutches, wheelchairs and Purple Hearts.

Some 70 wounded warriors and their guests arrived at The Venetian on Wednesday to celebrate Veterans Day Las Vegas style.

“We’re doing physical therapy day-in and day-out, and sometimes we just need a break from the hospital scene,” Marine Cpl. Jeremy Stengel said. “And what better place to take a break than in Las Vegas?”

American Airlines, the Sands Foundation, Thanks-USA and Blue Man Group teamed up to host the fourth Tribute to the Troops event, which provided about 140 people with a four-day trip to Las Vegas.

Among them was Stengel, who was injured in February 2007 in Iraq while in a Humvee that ran over an improvised explosive device. He suffered multiple broken bones in the explosion, which killed two others.

“Me and the driver were the only ones who made it out,” said Stengel, whose left leg was amputated below the knee. “He was also wounded.”

Stengel, 24, has been at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., since August 2007.

Army Spc. J.J. Smith, who was raised in Henderson, arrived at the medical center on June 5.

He was the only wounded warrior from Nevada on the Las Vegas trip.

Smith, 20, said he wanted to come home, see relatives and “try to have a good time and feel joy.”

His mother, longtime Las Vegas Review-Journal employee Marjorie Smith, was among the hundreds who greeted the wounded warriors during a red-carpet welcome at The Venetian.

“He was at that impressionable age when 9/11 hit, and he couldn’t wait to be old enough to go into the Army,” Smith’s mother said.

During an interview in his suite at The Venetian, Smith said he was wounded June 1 when an improvised explosive device detonated near a Humvee in Afghanistan. He was riding in the back seat, and three other soldiers in the vehicle were killed.

“I lost three people who were closer to me than family could ever be,” Smith said.

He has no memory of the explosion, which left him with several broken bones and a brain injury.

“I remember waking up in the hospital,” he said.

Smith, who dropped out of high school at 17 to join the Army, said he “can’t wait” to return to Afghanistan.

“I want to go back to finish what I started,” he said.

Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Sandy Ware, 46, was serving in Iraq when she was diagnosed with malignant cancer. She has been at Walter Reed since August 2007.

“I realize that there’s more to life than a medical environment, and this is a thrill of a lifetime for me,” Ware said after arriving with the group at The Venetian.

Ware said she spent a few hours in Las Vegas during a brief stop here in 1991. As she stood in front of The Venetian on Wednesday, using a cane for support, she said the four-day trip would be refreshing for her.

“It’s like I feel rejuvenated, and I’m looking forward to everything.”

A friend from Florida joined her at The Venetian. They were going to see Wayne Newton perform after dinner Wednesday night.

“While we’re out here partying, we’re also thinking about our deployed troops and their families,” Ware said.

After a flag salute and the singing of the national anthem, Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., addressed the wounded warriors and their guests under an overcast sky in front of The Venetian.

He urged those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder to seek help if they need it. “Don’t ever be ashamed of it.”

Smith said Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., helped send off the wounded warriors Wednesday in Washington, D.C.

 

Contact reporter Carri Geer Thevenot at cgeer@reviewjournal.com or 702-384-8710.

 

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