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Hurt, but up for the game

Wounded soldiers and Marines at the Army-Navy game add perspective, meaning to football rivalry.

Salutes from soldiers wounded in Afghanistan: Pfc. James Beyer (left), Pvt. Matt Katka (center), and Pvt. Sean Beaver during the national anthem at the Linc before the Army-Navy game. "We remember you every day," said Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs.
Salutes from soldiers wounded in Afghanistan: Pfc. James Beyer (left), Pvt. Matt Katka (center), and Pvt. Sean Beaver during the national anthem at the Linc before the Army-Navy game. "We remember you every day," said Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs.Read moreMICHAEL VITEZ / Staff

In Section 121, sunlit on the Army side, sat a special group of 85 soldiers and Marines at yesterday's Army-Navy game.

They could say things nobody else could.

Consider Row 18.

Seat 1: "I got blown up. Hit with a mortar round," said Pfc. James Beyer, 22, of Reno, Nev., looking fit and ready for duty other than the scars on his neck and side of his head. "It's a nice sunny day. I'm happy to get out and see a game."

Seat 2: "I was shot in the head," said Matt Katka, 20, a private from New Hampshire. "I had a helmet on, but it didn't really help. I'm grateful to be here."

Seat 3: "I had five gunshot wounds," said Sean Beaver, 20, a private from Richmond, Va. "One in my chest, and both lungs collapsed. Left cheek. Left thigh. Right shin. Left foot. It just happened Oct. 2, in Afghanistan. They call me the wolverine because I heal so fast. Some people don't fare as well."

For the sixth year in a row, the wounded were brought to the football game at Lincoln Financial Field from Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington and Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland, a trip organized and sponsored by the Army War College Foundation.

Some of the wounded loved getting out of the hospitals, seeing the game, shaking hands with the military brass. But others were still badly broken, physically and emotionally, in great pain, on medication, and uncomfortable being away from their rehab surroundings. These men and women were encouraged to come, but were really able to find comfort and security knowing that they were with others who had also lost limbs, or watched comrades die in their arms.

They ate hot dogs and posed with Miss USA, and cheered and did their best to enjoy an American tradition, the football rivalry between Army and Navy.

What was even more amazing than the litany of injuries, was how many wounded warriors wanted nothing more than to return to active duty.

"I got blew up by an IED," said Sgt. James Shong, 46, from Jackson, Mich. The explosion took place in 2007 in Iraq. He suffered traumatic brain injury and has severe memory and concentration problems, but all he wants to do is go to Afghanistan.

"I tried all my generals," he said. "My injuries might slow me up, but I'd like to continue what I started, to try to attempt to get world peace. And help people no matter where they're at. But I think the Army's going to medical me out."

The desire to return to duty was a constant refrain.

Before the game, the wounded men and women were brought into the Army "Warm Room," to enjoy a big spread of food and open bar. Most had never been to Philadelphia before, and were enjoying the adventure.

But for some, the day was extremely difficult.

Brett Graveline, 37, a staff sergeant from Agawam, Mass., was trying his best. An 18-year veteran with four deployments to the Middle East, he flew helicopters and said a "hot landing messed up disks in my neck" last summer. He has had several surgeries, two disks removed, and is on heavy-duty painkillers. That's only part of his problem.

In 2006, his third time in Iraq was "a pretty messy one." A helicopter in his unit was shot down, and all 12 soldiers on board died. He and his crew had to round up the body parts and put them in bags. "I bottled it all up inside until a few weeks ago," he said. "I finally had to talk to somebody. I hit rock bottom. I'm on my happy pills now."

Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, saluted the wounded warriors before the game in the Warm Room. "Thanks to those who are wounded. It's you who make all this possible. We remember you every day."

Included on the bus trip were about 20 Marines, including Marcus Wilson, 33, a gunnery sergeant from Dermott, Ark. Before the game, he sat at the bar in the Warm Room, with Cpl. Jose Daniel Gasca, 23, of El Paso, Texas.

They looked the part of Marines, with big smiles, having a good time, happy to be in Philadelphia, rooting for Navy and confident their team would win for the eighth year in a row.

Wilson was in Iraq in 2006, in a truck that was hit by an IED. The other three Marines in his vehicle were killed. Wilson fractured six vertebrae, broke six ribs, both arms, and the femur and tibia in his right leg. He lost his left leg above the knee. He's recovered well and hopes to finish his 20 years in the Marine Corps.

Gasca, his close friend, was on a combat patrol in Fallujah, Iraq, in the fall of 2008, when his vehicle was also hit by an IED. He broke three ribs, fractured his spine, and lost both legs. He's getting out and going to work for the government, but can't say any more than that.

In their uniforms, with their prosthetic devices, the men looked like anyone else in the room.

"Hey Gunny, great to see you!"

Wilson, the gunnery sergeant, broke into a big smile, and stood up when Gen. James T. Conway, the commandant of the Marine Corps, who has had both Wilson and Gasca and many others out to his home, and is a regular visitor at Walter Reed, greeted them.

"These are great warriors," the general said to a reporter.

But yesterday they were just football fans, happy to enjoy an afternoon in the sun.

Sgt. Ryan Major, 25, of Baltimore, watched the game with his service dog, a black German shepherd named Theodore. He lost one leg to an IED in Iraq, and the other leg to a fungus. He was comatose for three weeks after the blast. He seemed in great spirits yesterday.

"I love football," he said. He had enlisted for three years, he said, but two days before he was scheduled to go home, he was forbidden from leaving because of the military's stop-loss program. "Five days after stop loss, I got hit," he said. "Worst luck on the planet."

Major, like so many yesterday, wasn't feeling sorry for himself, or expecting anyone else to do so. He was happy to be here, surrounded by soldiers and hoping to see his team win.