Video: A celebration to remember

By Mike Taibbi Correspondent
NBC News
updated 7/14/2006 7:24:09 PM ET 2006-07-14T23:24:09

It was an amazing parade most New Yorkers never saw: About 30 wounded war veterans, most injured in Iraq, perched high on a couple of antique fire trucks for the last part of the trip up from Washington's Walter Reed Army Hospital to New York's Rockaway.

The unofficial marshal and master planner — 62-year-old retired firefighter Flip Mullen.

"Their battle's just beginning, and the least we can do is be there for them," says Mullen.

And shut down a bridge for them. And arrange for all those salutes and cheers along the way — fireboats in the water, police choppers overhead, and a helping hand at the end — with a kiss from Captain Leslie Smith — when a hand was just what was needed.

"The emotion of the welcoming that they had, this is the homecoming that these guys never got," Mullen says.

It fits, of course, that that homecoming was the work of Mullen and his Rockaway neighbors a beachfront enclave filled with firefighters and cops, who had their own terrible losses on Sept. 11, and, like their guests, the need to recover.

"Knock 'em down, but they'll get back up again," Mullen says. "Same as Rockaway people."

So Mullen hooked them up with host families — there are no hotels in the Rockaways — and then dispatched them happily to two full days of getting back to the land of the living.

A summer festival of adaptive water sports — everything donated, the experts all volunteers, physical challenges that almost always produced success in minutes — for the war wounded who've struggled for any kind of success for days, weeks, months in grueling indoor therapy.

Sgt. David Bronson lost a leg.

"I mean, being in the hospital drove me nuts," Bronson says.

Just as it drove these other soldiers nuts. Until they got away for a few days to try that jet-ski, or harness the wind, or turn their worries weightless, or show their kids they've still got it. Or pray among people who understand what's been lost and what can be found.

Flip Mullen's people — his plan.

"This is a lay-up. This is nothing," Mullen says.

In fact, it's the very opposite of nothing. It's what proves the truth of what the name on the transom says about everybody in the boat — and about everybody who knows this story: "Lucky Us."

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