While trying to come to grips with the tragic loss of my wife of 42 years due to a catastrophic car accident in June I was inspired to respond to a call for private railcar owners to participate in a very special event planned for December 11, 2010.
Bennett Levin, a fellow car owner, created the concept of operating a special train named the Liberty Limited as a way to honor wounded warriors in 2005. His idea was to assemble a train of privately owned passenger cars to transport wounded warriors in grand style from Washington DC to Philadelphia to attend the traditional Army-Navy game. As a trustee of the War College, Bennett had the connections to pursue such a plan. Both Walter Reed Army Hospital and Bethesda Navy Hospital enthusiastically supported the idea. The railroads involved, Amtrak, CSX, and Conrail were joined by other corporations as sponsors of the event. The first very successful trip was followed by a second in 2006. There were three basic rules. No politicians, no media and no senior officers. In short, this was for the sole benefit of the wounded warriors and their families. It was not a photo op to be taken advantage of by anybody.
Circumstances precluded the operation of another Liberty Limited until this year. When I learned that Bennett was taking on the incredible burden of organizing another of these very special trains I knew I had to participate no matter what. Two good friends from here in Payson, Arizona, Andy McKinney and Roscoe Dabney, agreed to help me operate my private car, Pony Express, and provide on board service to the guests who would be on the train.
The Pony is a former Canadian Pacific Baggage - Express - Horse car that has been converted into a party car complete with antique bar, wood paneling, a parquet dance floor and lounge area. With its open space and big side doors it was designated to be a support car. We would handle and store wheel chairs, medical staff and onboard security. The wounded warriors were provided first class lounge and dining accommodations in the other 18 cars on the train.
The Pony Express had to leave its home base in Winslow, Arizona on December 5 in order to arrive in DC in time to assemble, inspect and provision the special train. We were coupled to the rear of Amtrak's Southwest Chief and traveled to Chicago arriving on time the afternoon of December 6. The Pony was supposed to depart Chicago on Amtrak's Capitol Limited on December 7, but a yard mishap delayed departure for one day. As a result we spent a second cold day in Chicago and arrived in Washington a day late. While stranded in Chicago one of the Amtrak mechanical people took pity on our plight and drove Roscoe to a local food purveyor where he picked up a case of White Castle burgers, they sure hit the spot. Amtrak, Washington, was aware of our situation and made sure we were serviced and inspected on arrival the afternoon of December 9. We were switched into the train in plenty of time for the event.
The morning of December 11 arrived and the train was spotted on two tracks on the upper level of Washington Union Station. The train was split in two because it was too long to fit on one track. We boarded wheel chair warriors through the side doors on the Pony then used Amtrak's special narrow aisle chairs to move the passenger to an adjacent car for more comfortable seating. The wheel chairs were then stored in the Pony. The Liberty Limited departed Washington Union Station at 9:16 am.
An Army Colonel, MD and a Navy Lieutenant Commander, MD were positioned in the Pony with medical supplies if needed. Other doctors and nurses were positioned throughout the train. Fortunately there were no medical emergencies on this trip. A Special Operations Unit of the Amtrak Police Department was also positioned on the Pony.
Our train was pulled by Bennett Levin's two streamlined 1951 passenger diesels. These historic units are painted in the Pennsylvania Railroads' classic Tuscan Red livery and helped enhance the image of travel in a bygone day.
On arrival in Philadelphia the train was switched into a CSX yard immediately adjacent to Lincoln Financial Field where the game would be played. The warriors, their families and medical staff detrained and were bussed a short distance from the train to the stadium.
While our special guests were off the train the car owners and staff serviced the train and prepared for the full dinner that would be served during the return journey.
Following the game, Navy won their ninth straight 31-17, the troops returned to the train and we departed. Even though Army lost our Army guests had enjoyed the day away from the hospital and were in good spirits. This was also an opportunity for medical staff to get away from hospital routine for a day and they were able to enjoy themselves as well. We arrived back in Washington Union Station around 9:45 pm. After some emotional good byes our guests were off the train and it was taken back to the Amtrak Ivy City yard to be serviced and switched out.
Several of the cars departed for their home bases on Sunday the 12th. The Pony and 3 other cars departed for Chicago on Monday the 13th. During the return trip we traveled through Ohio and Indiana during an intense snowstorm. Chicago was just plain cold with snow on the ground. We departed Chicago for Winslow the afternoon of Wednesday, December 15 on the Southwest Chief. Snow found us again crossing Raton and Glorietta Passes in New Mexico. We arrived in Winslow at 8:45pm the evening of Thursday, December 16, twelve days and 5,000 miles later.
This was a truly memorable and therapeutic experience. We all felt honored and humbled to be able to participate. These wounded warriors are very special people and deserve all of the respect and support we can give them.