In 2011, Mary Kerr’s son, Army 1st Lt. Cameron Kerr, stepped on an improvised explosive device in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan. He lost his left leg below the knee and was flown to then-Walter Reed Army Medical Center (WRAMC) for treatment.
During the first week at the hospital, Mary said several organizations offered Cameron extravagant gifts, including laptops, video game systems and even a car.
“It was really nice and very generous but the thing that really got to him, the thing that he talked about more than anything, was that somebody brought him homemade cookies,” she said.
That “somebody” turned out to be Tom Porter and his wife Eleanor, who were making one of their twice-weekly visits to the patient wards at WRAMC – just as they had done every week since 2004.
Those visits and their consistency as leaders, mentors and role models to wounded warriors and amputees led Mary to nominate the Porters for the 2014 Henry Viscardi Achievement Awards presented by The Viscardi Center, an organization that annually recognizes members of the global community who have raised awareness and improved the quality of life for people with disabilities. The center presented the award to the Porters at Naval Support Activity Bethesda’s USO Warrior and Family Center Aug. 4.
“Tom has shared his personal stories and has listened to and motivated our service men and women for nearly a decade,” John D. Kemp, president and CEO of The Viscardi Center, said. “The Porters serve as living proof that losing a leg or two is certainly not the end of anything.”
A combat wounded veteran himself, Tom understands the emotional and physical struggles of being an amputee. During the Korean War, two separate land mines took Tom’s legs as his platoon returned from an all-night patrol.
“We came into a mine field. I hit a land mine with my right leg and kind of flew up in the air and when I came down, another land mine took out my left leg,” he explained. “They took us to the battalion aid station to get us cleaned up. In Korea it was the rainy season, so we were stuck in the MASH (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital) for about two weeks. That’s a long time.”
Tom spent another two weeks en route to the United States. Medical evacuations from a combat zone took time in the early 1950s, he said.
Months later, he was finally fitted for prosthetic legs. He met Eleanor, an Army physical therapist, during his recovery and the two would later marry. They celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary in March.
The Henry Viscardi Achievement Awards were established to honor the legacy and vision of The Viscardi Center’s founder, Dr. Henry Viscardi, Jr., who himself wore prosthetic legs. Viscardi worked as an American Red Cross volunteer at Walter Reed General Hospital, which then housed the only military amputee center in the country, explained Kemp.
“Dr. Viscardi encouraged wounded soldiers and taught them how to use their artificial limbs. He organized the first dance for enlisted men who were amputees and he held driving lessons,” Kemp said. “This was the beginning of a program established by the Armed Forces and the Veterans Administration that went on to provide the disabled soldier with the finest prosthetic appliances.”
Years later, Dr. Viscardi founded The Viscardi Center to show the world that disabled veterans from World War II and the Korean War had the skills and abilities to be successful employees, Kemp continued. The center provided assembly and factory work for several industries and was the first business in the United States to be staffed primarily by people with disabilities.
The 2014 selection committee was co-chaired by former U.S. Senator Bob Dole and Ambassador Luis Gallegos of Ecuador. Dole attended the award presentation at USO Bethesda.
“I truly believe in my heart it’s people like you who make a difference,” Dole said to Tom and Eleanor during his remarks. “You gave people hope.”
During their visits to WRAMC, the Porters offered friendly smiles and conversation to comfort the wounded returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They made it a point to learn each service member’s hometown. And Eleanor brought cookies.
“They were just down-home ordinary people. But they were there. They were consistent,” said Mary. “It’s small, but it’s important. It changes lives.”
Upon receiving the award, Tom was humble but appreciative.
“I’m very grateful, but it’s not about me – it’s about the person I’m visiting,” Tom said. “It has been the most rewarding experience of our lives in the last 30 years.”