Widowed veteran guides outreach to wounded soldiers

Soldiers often say they serve in the military to make a difference in other people's lives.

Wesley Bauguess makes a difference in soldiers' lives.

Her focus is on the soldiers of the 82nd Airborne Division who get sent back from a deployment injured or sick. Though many organizations are dedicated to helping those soldiers, the Wounded Warrior Committee that Bauguess oversees concentrates on making them more comfortable during their recovery at Army hospitals with useful items emblazoned with the logo of the storied 82nd.

"In the Army, your unit members are your family members," said Bauguess, who served five years in the Army before getting out to have the first of two daughters. "We want to keep these soldiers in contact, even though they're far away. We're saying, 'You are 82nd, and we are with you. You are still part of this team.'"

A couple of years ago, after her soldier-husband, Larry, was killed in action, Bauguess wasn't sure what her place was on the team.

Bauguess and Larry both loved the military; they met in ROTC at Appalachian State University, drawn to the discipline and camaraderie, and to one another. Larry was a year ahead of her in school. They married when she had a semester left.

They moved from one installation to another. Wesley got out of the Army in 1999, and the couple landed at Fort Bragg in 2002. It was where Larry wanted to be so he could eventually join the 82nd, which he did in 2006.

Bauguess was serving, too, volunteering with the unit's family readiness group, including helping to start and train a Care Team, whose members would go to the home of a surviving spouse in the event one of the unit's soldiers got killed. Care Team members would answer the phone and the door, handle the outpouring of gifts and food, and do anything else that might be needed.

Larry had been in the 82nd just a year when the division was sent to Afghanistan, Larry's second deployment in the war in the Middle East. On Mother's Day 2007, he called his mother in his hometown of Moravian Falls outside Wilkesboro, and he called his wife and daughters on post at Fort Bragg. He'd had a good day, he said. There had been special activities on the base, and he'd gotten a ride on a camel. He sent a picture via e-mail.

The next day, he went on a mission to help negotiate a settlement in a border dispute between Afghanistan and Pakistan. It seemed to go well, Wesley was told later by other soldiers who were there that day. But as the meeting broke up, the team was ambushed, and Maj. Larry J. Bauguess Jr., 36, was killed.

The notification team that came to her house was followed by Care Team members Bauguess had helped train.

"I must have done a good job," Bauguess said. "Because they took really good care of me."

A few months later, Bauguess returned to the family readiness group, but it felt different, she said. A widow among the wives of active-duty soldiers, she struggled to find her role. Then a friend asked whether she be interested in starting a new outreach for the 82nd, the Wounded Warriors Committee, modeled on similar efforts by other units.

"I didn't even have to think about it," she said. "I knew."

Wounded Warriors

The group's first project was buying breakaway pants with snaps down the sides for soldiers whose injuries required casts, braces, prosthetics or wheelchairs that made it difficult to get in and out of long pants.

The committee gradually added goodies, all marked with the 82nd's insignia, AA for "All American." Now, new arrivals from the 82nd to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington and Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas, get a backpack that also holds a fleece jacket with a full zipper, a T-shirt, a pair of shorts, a rain jacket, a flip-top water bottle, an umbrella and thanks on a hand-written card. Committee members also welcome home soldiers with less-serious injuries who are sent to Womack Army Medical Center at Fort Bragg.

The packs and contents are paid for by donations, which come largely through word-of-mouth -- a blessing, Bauguess said, because she hates asking people for money, preferring to spend her talents on organizing the committee's work, and visiting wounded soldiers personally.

Bauguess goes as often as she can, about once a month, to Reed and twice a year to Brooke.

"The visits are brief," she said, but satisfying. She sees the progress the soldiers are making, and the good the committee is doing.

Joanne Chavonne, who helped put together Fayetteville Cares, an umbrella group that helps connect more than three dozen local groups with the military personnel and families they want to assist, said Bauguess doesn't often need to ask for help.

"It's just her presence," Chavonne said. "She is just such a graceful, calm, insightful, caring person that you just want to help her do whatever she's doing. Because you know she's doing it for the right reason, and you know it's going to be done well."

'God was getting me ready'

Bauguess says the committee post was a perfect fit that uses all her experience: education in communication and administration, years in the Army's Medical Service Corps, and the loss of a spouse in war. She said the more time she spends among wounded warriors, who are sometimes angry or frustrated but always strong and inspiring, the more comfortable she becomes.

"I believe God was getting me ready for this," she said. "Those experiences were all building blocks that add up to this."

Next year, Bauguess said, she will have been in charge of the committee for three years, and she has warned some of the 30 other volunteers that it might be time for her to find some other way to serve. She isn't sure what, but she has been watching a couple of national programs that help wounded soldiers.

"She's done such a great job of organizing everything that it would continue on just fine," said Katie Bricker, who works on the committee with Bauguess.

Bauguess visited Walter Reed on Monday, checking in with a couple of the 82nd's men who are there. One, she said, was signing out, leaving the Army on a medical discharge, and heading to Florida to go back to school.

He has moved on from his adversity.

Bauguess is moving on from hers, too.