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Wounded troops and families feted for holiday at Haley VA

Aurora Nelson, 4, and her grandparents, Gail, left, and U.S. Army Chaplain Lee Nelson (paralyzed in a motorcycle accident in August in Italy) prepare to dine Thursday at the Operation Helping Hand Dinner at the James A. Haley VA Medical Center.

CHRIS ZUPPA | Times

Aurora Nelson, 4, and her grandparents, Gail, left, and U.S. Army Chaplain Lee Nelson (paralyzed in a motorcycle accident in August in Italy) prepare to dine Thursday at the Operation Helping Hand Dinner at the James A. Haley VA Medical Center.

TAMPA

The din rose higher and higher as more than 300 guests talked and chowed down on turkey, but Craig Remsburg was determined to speak his piece Thursday night.

"I just want to thank you for all you're doing for us," Remsburg said as he shook the hand of Bob Silah, the chairman of Operation Helping Hand. "This is all so wonderful."

The father of an Army Ranger in a coma, Remsburg was in awe of how the Tampa community came out in force to honor his son and nearly 30 other injured or wounded military personnel at Operation Helping Hand's monthly dinner at the James A. Haley VA Medical Center's Spinal Cord Injury Center.

People were listening to Christmas music and talking between forkfuls of turkey , mashed potatoes, bread, yams and fried plantains.

Santa Claus sat smilingly near the front of the room, welcoming children. The Tampa Bay Lightning's Thunderbug flitted from table to table working the littlest dinner guests into a frenzy with mimicry and gags.

Silah said the group had raised $12,000 during the dinner, the bulk — $8,000 — coming from the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office clay pigeon shoot out.

But two other hard working donors got the most applause.

Caneel and Carlin Dixon, 12 and 10 respectively, of Tampa, gathered loose beads at the Gasparilla parade, cleaned and resold them to raise $209 for the veterans.

The St. John's Episcopal students said their mother, retired Army Lt. Col. Deirdre Dixon, brings them to Haley to visit friends of hers who were injured and to Helping Hands dinners three times a year. "So we got the idea and we just wanted to help."

Their homemade cardboard check to accompany the real money was met with hoots and cheers.

Remsburg was headed back to his son Cory's room to share the autographs of Tampa Bay Lightning girls when he stopped by the podium to thank Silah.

Cory Remsburg had been in the service eight years and was on his 10th deployment to the Middle East when a roadside bomb exploded near his group in October.

"He's in a coma right now and we've been in Tampa for about a month," Remsburg, 53, said. "He would enjoy this."

Others were enjoying the fare with their families — even with limited mobility.

"I once helped (Operation Helping Hand) hand out presents during the holidays," said Army Chaplain Lee Nelson, a Haley patient who was paralyzed in a motorcycle accident in August in Italy.

He said he's come to the dinners every month since he was transferred from Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.

"I started off in a coma," he said. "Then after that I got the sensation back in my upper body and my arms."

Doctors aren't able to tell if the 53-year-old will regain the use of his legs. He has been a chaplain in the Army since 1995.

"They do this to recognize the patients," he said. "It's been real good."

Robbyn Mitchell can be reached at (813) 226-3373 or rmitchell@sptimes.com.

Fast facts

To learn more

Operation Helping Hand is a volunteer group that raises funds and holds functions to support wounded and injured active duty military personnel being treated at James A. Haley VA Medical Center. The group provides services such as travel expenses to gift bags with gas cards and phone cards. Founded by the Tampa Chapter of the Military Officers Association of America in 2004, Operation Helping Hand holds monthly dinners for the patients as a sign of appreciation for their service.

For more information, visit www.OperationHelpingHandTampa.com.

Wounded troops and families feted for holiday at Haley VA 12/17/09 [Last modified: Thursday, December 17, 2009 11:54pm]
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