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Leaders, celebrities thank wounded warriors

FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas (AFRNS) -- How does a nation thank someone whose legs were destroyed by an insurgent's homemade bomb? How do Americans pay tribute to someone whose face melted in the fires of war?

In marking the opening of a new state-of-the-art rehabilitation center near Brooke Army Medical Center, and two new Fisher Houses here Jan. 29, Cabinet secretaries, military leaders, senators, business leaders, and celebrities did their best to express their gratitude to some of the nation's sons and daughters who bear the scars of combat. The VIPs acknowledged both the servicemembers' and their family members' sacrifice.

"All those who have made the ultimate sacrifice and all those recovering from their wounds remind us of the price of freedom," Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England said. "It is a price that is periodically required to be paid in blood, and suffering and courage."

Secretary England was one of about 3,000 people gathered here to mark the opening of the Center for the Intrepid, a national rehabilitation center, and two Fisher Houses, where families of the severely wounded stay to be near their loved ones. The $50 million center was built from private funds donated to the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund.

"What you see before you is a monument built by contributions by 600,000 Americans," said Arnold Fisher, chairman of the fund. "This is a monument to not only the men and women and their families who will come here, but a monument to the generosity of our citizens and their love for those who serve."

Guests, including actress Michelle Pfeiffer, talk-show celebrity Rosie O'Donnell, singer-songwriter John Mellencamp and producer David E. Kelley, paid tribute to more than 300 severely wounded men and women. While some troops sat in a row of wheelchairs in front of the stage, others slowly walked beneath crossed swords to silently parade before the applauding audience.

Mr. Mellencamp said he came here because the rehabilitation center is a worthwhile project.

"It shows the spirit of what people can do on their own when they want to and when they need to," he told American Forces Press Service.

Marine Gen. Peter Pace, the military's highest-ranking officer, said he objects to the idea that these members of the all-volunteer force "lost" their limbs.

"You gave an arm; you gave a leg; you gave your sight as gifts to your nation that we might live in freedom," the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff emphatically told the wounded warriors.

General Pace said families members have sacrificed in ways that most people can only imagine. They, too, often need rehabilitation, and that's why the Center for the Intrepid and the Fisher Houses are so important.

"Those of you who are family members of the fallen and of the wounded have served this country as well as anyone who has ever worn the uniform, and we thank you for that," the chairman said. "You pray for us when we're gone, and ... when we're wounded, you're there to put us back together again."

During the ceremony, Arizona Sen. John McCain acknowledged the debt the nation owes its combat veterans and their families.

"We have incurred a debt to you, and no matter how sincerely and generously we honor our obligations to you, we can never repay in full," McCain said. "What you have done for us we can never do for you. But we're mindful of that distinction and humbled by it.

"Our appreciation for your service demands that we all do what we can ... to help keep this nation a place, an idea worthy of the hardships, dangers and sacrifices you have borne so valiantly for us."

New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton said the country has been well served by those who fight for our freedoms.

"We are blessed to have so many who have given so much," she said. "But in return, we are obligated to ensure in every way we can that they and their families are given the support that they have so richly earned and deserved."