The best Army Navy story ever
In 2005 and 2006, The Liberty Limited took wounded troops to Lincoln Financial Field for the big game - and not a soul knew about it until after the game was over.
The best Army Navy story ever
So the 109th Army-Navy FootBall Game kicks off tomorrow at noon.
I'd never taken much notice of the annual pigksin throwdown between West Point and the U.S. Naval Academy (I only have enough brain space to keep track of the Eagles).
But that changed when I got chance to experience the game in an entirely different way: Through the eyes of soldiers injured in Iraq and Afghanistan, who were recovering form their injuries at Walter Reed U.S. Army Medical Center and the Bethesda Naval Hosptial.
And through the generosity of Bennett and Vivian Levin, a local couple whose regard for those who serve the country moved them to do something extraordinary to show their appreciation.
In 2005, they assembled a line of luxe, vintage train cars, which they dubbed The Liberty Limited, to transport the soldiers to the Army-Navy Game from D.C. and Bethesda, Md. This was no ordinary train - it's showcase car was The Pennsylvania, the very car that transported Bobby Kennedy's body, after his assassination, to Virginia for burial.
You can get chills, standing on the back platform of The Pennsylvania, recalling images of those who, in tears, lined the tracks in tribute to Kennedy as the car rumbled slowly through their towns.
I wrote about the Liberty Limited's first ride, after the fact, and I invite you to read it via this link, because the world needs to hear, again, about the wonderful thing Bennet and Viv did for the troops.
The Levins repeated their efforts the following year, and invited me along - but only if I donned a white waiter's jacket and helped served the troops the extraordinary meals prepared in the train's kichens.
I've waited tables before, but never before did the experience put a lump in my throat the way it did that day.
"Ronnie, get ready for some hard work," Bennett told me, as I boarded the Liberty Limited.
Hard? Hardly. I've never had so much fun asking, "Corporal, can I refill your coffee cup? "
The 102 soldiers I met were courteous and excited to be aboard such a magnificent train.
Their injuries ranged from mangled limbs and blindness to spinal injuries and facial disfigurement. Not that they spoke much of their conditions.
Mostly, they reveled in the ride.
Some played raucous poker; others lounged in front of one of the train's plasma TVs.
One Army captain, a father of five from Missouri whose knee had been destroyed in an explosion, mostly just grinned.
"What a great break from rehab," he said, as the train rolled majestically over a trestle, headed toward Philly. "I really needed this. "
Another young Marine removed his leg prosthesis and settled comfortably into one of the Liberty Limited 's plush recliners and sighed, "This is the life. "
But it took almost the entire trip for the mother of another soldier - troops could bring a guest - to accept that the trip had no strings attached: It was all for her son.
"This makes me think that maybe people do care, after all," she told Vivian, gripping her in a teary hug.
Unlike the men and women on that train, I've never worn a uniform in the act of serving my country. But that weekend, I was proud to wear my porter's jacket, sporting the red-and-gold insignia of the Liberty Limited, so I could thank those who serve.
It was a pride shared by the 37 porters, 15 railcar owners, 24 medical staff and 30 guests of the 1,780-foot rail caravan.
In a day of wonderful moments, one of the sweetest occurred as the Liberty Limited II pulled away from Philly, heading back to D.C.
In a spontaneous gesture, volunteers in the CSX rail yard fanned out along the length of the train as it gathered speed, and held their arms in salute.
"Look at that!" said Vivian, excitedly pointing out the tableau to the soldiers settling down for dinner. "That's for you! "
I think it was for Bennett and Vivian, too.