Sgt. James Pierce was with the 514th Military Police Company in Afghanistan’s Khost Province in 2012 and received a tip that a suicide bomber was in the area. Pierce and other MPs began a dismounted patrol and set up a control point to stop cars and check identifications.
“We had someone come up to us and blow himself up,” Pierce said. “It killed three of my teammates and I was one of three survivors.”
He was transported to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where he underwent nine surgeries and had a permanent brace put in his leg and some hardware added to put his wrist back together.
During his recovery in 2013, he learned about Operation Warfighter, which lets troops return to duty or choose another path. With a degree from the Appalachian State University in recreational management, he opted for employment with the National Park Service, which brought connections he could not have foreseen.
Unknown to Pierce, years of effort and funding had finally brought completion to a special project, and in 2014 he was assigned to the new American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial, just west of the U.S. Capitol.
“At the dedication in 2014, I attended the ceremony and President Barack Obama and Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell gave me a personal shout-out – it was such an honor,” he said.
“This memorial is unique because it’s the only memorial dedicated to living service members,” Pierce said. “The site means a lot to me because I’m a living, wounded service member.”
Forrest Lingenfelter of Dale City, a member of American Legion Post 177 in Fairfax, had volunteered in the summer of 2014 to help clean the memorial.
He was so moved by the experience that he asked Pierce, who was coordinating support at the memorial, whether American Legion volunteers from Northern Virginia and the District of Columbia could continue to help clean the memorial during warmer months.
“In May 2015, we started doing exactly that,” Lingenfelter said.
However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, last Saturday was the first time the group returned to the memorial in more than a year. Lingenfelter said they wash the glass panels and granite surfaces, clean the reflecting pool if it’s dirty from debris or pollen, and even pull weeds if time allows.
“These were veterans – men and women – who suffered greatly, and lived to tell about it,” Lingenfelter said. “They are constantly reminded of their service to our country and the profound effect it had on them. The American Legion continues to serve after we leave the military, and continue recognizing our veteran’s service to our country – we want them to know they’ll never be forgotten.”
Pierce, now a park ranger and volunteer coordinator living in Annandale, said the memorial’s architecture is positioned to tie the impact on veterans with the decisions of Congress.
“The whole purpose of the break in the Wall of Gratitude is that you can see the Capitol in the background, because when they vote, they need to realize the true cost of war,” he added. “Not everyone is killed; some of them come back injured, and some wounds you can see and some you can’t.”