Giving Heroes A Day To Remember

Jerry Coffee
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Wednesday - January 11, 2006
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Last November I had occasion to travel from Boston to Washington, D.C., and since I had always wondered about AMTRAK’S new high-speed Accela train. And since I try to live by the “Code of Experience,” I decided to give it a go. The “First Class Car” cost a little less than a flight would have cost, so I went first class - why not?

The five-hour journey included wide, comfortable reclining seats, a “gourmet” sandwich and drinks and, overall, was more relaxing than two airports and a plane ride. The countryside south of Boston was picturesque New England, but the bummer was trash-infested railroad right-of-ways through the suburbs of Philadelphia and D.C. I was embarrassed to think of foreign tourists seeing that aspect of such an historical part of our country.

So, having just traveled that route, I took special interest in a story in the Philadelphia Daily News of Dec. 22. It seems that Bennett and Vivian Levin were “overwhelmed by sadness” as they heard radio reports of military men and women seriously wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan and their challenging routines of rehab and recovery in the Walter Reed Army Medical Center and the Naval Hospital, Bethesda, in the Washington, D.C., area. They decided they would do something “nice” for these young Americans, like organize a train to bring them all to Philadelphia for the annual Army-Navy football game. And this would be a train like no other before it.

Bennett Levin, a Philly guy himself and “self-made millionaire,” happens to own his own train. Yes, three classy historical passenger cars - think mahogany paneling, plush seating, white-linen dining - and two locomotives. Such train buffs keep in touch, so Bennett convinced several other train-ophiles to pitch in with 15 more sumptuous rail cars from around the country. “We wanted to give these young heroes a first-class experience,” said Bennett, “gourmet meals, private transportation from train to stadium, perfect seats - real hero treatment!”

With support from the Army War College Foundation and close consultation with Walter Reed’s commanding general - “who loved the idea” - Bennett set the wheels in motion. However, he insisted on three ground rules: no media on board, no politicians on board and no Pentagon brass on board - all to provide for minimum hassle and maximum relaxation for the troops.

“AMTRAK agreed to transport all the cars to D.C. where they would be coupled together for the round trip to Philly,” and the “Liberty Express” became a reality. The service men and women and their guests - one friend or family member each (the Marines declined so more Marines could come) - were comfortably bused the short distance from the train to the stadium. They occupied a section of honor: 150-yard-line seats “ponied up by a benefactor from the War College.”

Corporate sponsors filled “goody bags” without advertising: digital cameras, binoculars, stadium blankets and down jackets.

Bennett admits to being an emotional guy, and was worried about how he’d react to meeting the 88 troops and guests at D.C.‘s Union Station. Some were missing limbs, were wheelchair-bound or accompanied by medical personnel. But “They made it easy to be with them,” he said, “all smiles on the train, no self-pity, and full of confidence and determination about the future.”

The troops “reveled in the game” and the atmosphere despite Army’s lopsided loss to Navy. On the trip back there was another gourmet meal. “Heroes get hungry,” Bennett observed. “Overall, the day was spectacular!” Back on the platform at Union Station, the Marines hugged the Levins goodbye, then serenaded them with the Marine Corps Hymn. “One of the Marines was blind, but he said, ‘I can’t see you, but, man, you must be f-ing beautiful!’” Said Bennett, “I got a lump in my throat so big I couldn’t even answer him.” For the Levins, they insist their Christmas came early!

And I’d bet that given what those brave young heroes have been through and then were experiencing that day, they didn’t even notice the trash along the right-of-way.

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