Frank Bray still gets choked up over the trip he took last weekend with 31 other American Legion veterans.
They'd spent months raising $13,000 for the trip to visit wounded troops at Walter Reed Army and Bethesda Naval military hospitals in Maryland, near Washington, D.C.
The money was divided into $100 gift cards. Each wounded soldier or Marine – 60 in all – got one.
The legionnaires – members of 13 Charlotte-area posts in district 20 – each paid $300 out of their pockets for the bus and hotel fare.
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They called their mission “The Show 'Em We Care Ride 2008.”
“We went up there to tell these kids that we appreciate their service and sacrifice,” said Bray, 71, of Charlotte, a Navy dental corpsman in the 1950s and the district's vice commander.
“These kids are getting hurt so bad. We took this trip to remind people that whenever this conflict (in Iraq and Afghanistan) is over, they'll still be wounded.
“We can't forget their sacrifice.”
Many of the wounded had missing limbs, victims of car or roadside bombs.
Some lay in beds, or sat in wheelchairs.
Others walked on crutches.
All were appreciative to be alive – and amazed at the kindness the Charlotte group showered on them.
Bray's voice quivered as he recalled walking into a room where a soldier missing a leg was in bed and his mother sat by his side.
He hugged the mother, and the two cried.
“I'm a father of five who wouldn't want one of his kids laying in a bed with a leg missing,” he said.
Last year, Walter Reed made headlines for shoddy conditions and neglectful care. Things have changed, Bray said.
“You could eat off the floor,” he said. “We asked them how they were being treated and every soldier or Marine absolutely bragged about the care.”
The group still has $7,000 to give away to the wounded. They're looking into going to hospitals at Fort Bragg or Camp Lejeune.
Until then, they'll swap stories about their weekend.
“I've never been with a gang of 32 people who were so enthused about what they had just done,” Bray said.
“It was one of the most meaningful things I've ever done.”