To send a card to Lance Cpl. Patrick Pittman Jr., mail it to:
Naval Hospital Camp Lejeune, 100 Brewster Blvd., Camp Lejeune, NC 28547
The gesture from the President of the United States was as unexpected as the visit itself.
As President George W. Bush made his way out of Marine One back to the White House, he stopped to pay his respects to two wounded soldiers and their parents who had been invited to the White House. The two Marines had been badly wounded in a suicide bomb blast in Ramadi, Iraq, a month before.
The president greeted the two Marines and their parents — and kissed both Marines, Lance Cpl. Patrick Paul Pittman Jr. and Lance Cpl. Marc E. Olson, on their foreheads.
“We didn’t know the president was going to come and greet my son and the other warrior like he did,” said Patrick Pittman Sr., who accompanied his son to the White House. “He came right over to my son, who was in a wheelchair, and introduced himself. It was a total surprise to everybody.
“The president looked at me and said, ‘Daddy, let’s get him out of that wheelchair for a picture.’”
And with that, the elder Pittman, an Effingham County resident and law enforcement officer, helped his son, a 2004 graduate of Effingham County High School, to his feet for a picture that quickly captured international attention.
The younger Pittman also had the opportunity to capture the president’s attention.
“My son got a chance to tell the president how he inspired him to be a Marine,” his father said.
The younger Pittman was a sophomore at Effingham County High School on 9/11. He always wanted to follow in his daddy’s footsteps, his father said.
“He always wanted to help people, and President Bush inspired my son to be a Marine on 9/11,” Pittman Sr. said.
The visit was set in motion when the younger Pittman was recovering from a series of serious injuries suffered from the blast.
Pittman and another Marine were manning a checkpoint. A suicide bomber got around Iraqi civilians guarding the encampment and got out of his vehicle, which was packed with explosives. The bomber had a suicide vest, laced with more explosives. He set the truck and his vest off simultaneously.
The explosions killed eight people. Several more were wounded, including Pittman and another Marine.
“He’s critically wounded and he’s trying to help his fellow Marine, crawling to him,” his father said.
The White House visit started when the assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. James Amos, awarded the younger Pittman the Purple Heart for his injuries suffered in the blast.
“He said, ‘If I could get out of this bed right now and get back to Iraq, I would,’” Pittman Sr. remarked of what his son told Gen. Amos. “He’s very highly dedicated not only to be an American, but to be a Marine.”
The road to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
Gen. Amos asked the younger Pittman if he wanted to meet the president who inspired him to join the Corps. The White House staff then coordinated the event, setting up for the visit on the South Lawn to watch the president’s helicopter land. President Bush had spent part of the day talking to the cadets at West Point.
“My son asked me, ‘Daddy, I want you with me,’” the elder Pittman said.
The elder Pittman, who was in the Corps for eight years, met with one of the pilots of Marine 1, the president’s helicopter. The Pittmans got a behind-the-scenes tour of the White House, even going into areas the usual tourists don’t get to see.
The White House press corps also greeted the two wounded Marines “with the greatest admiration,” Pittman Sr. said.
“It was amazing the treatment these young warriors got. I can’t say enough good things about the White House staff.”
But the president wasn’t expected to come over to greet the two Marines and their families.
“When the president kissed those two young men on their foreheads, it was for every son and daughter, every brother and sister, every mother and father who has lost someone in this war,” Pittman Sr. said.
“He turned to me and shook my hand and said, ‘Thank you.’ I told the president, ‘Thank you, and God bless you, sir.’ You could see the genuine compassion, concern, the heartfelt thanks for those boys and all branches of the service.”
The dangers of war
In the days before the younger Pittman left for a tour of duty in Iraq, the Pittmans had a father-son chat. A former Marine himself, the elder Pittman told his son what to look out for in a combat zone. The younger Pittman has been in the Marines for two years, and his date of entry into the corps nearly coincides with the Marine Corps birthday.
“He said, ‘I know where I’m going. I know what consequences I face,’” Pittman Sr. said. “‘But I’m proud to be an American and proud to be in the United States Marine Corps. If it is God’s choice I don’t come back, I leave with a lot of pride.’
“I said, ‘You’re going to a place where there’s a lot of hostility. You stay focused and you stay aware of your surroundings and you trust no one except your fellow Marines.’”
What he didn’t know and couldn’t have foreseen was warning his son about the gravest danger he faced as a Marine in Lebanon.
“I never thought I would see my son hurt in a suicide blast,” Pittman Sr. said.
The elder Pittman knows first-hand the havoc a suicide bomber can wreak. He was in the 24th Marine Amphibious Unit in Beirut when a truck bomb detonated near the Marine barracks there in 1983.
The younger Pittman was three months into a seven-month deployment when the suicide bomber struck. Pittman suffered 10 fractures of his right arm. Two of them were open fractures. He also had a broken nose and a broken orbital bone. He’s also had three skin grafts and an arterial graft to repair the damage done to the blood vessels in his right arm. Both his eardrums were blown out, but his doctors are optimistic that further surgery will restore his hearing.
The younger Pittman spent nearly a month at Bethesda Naval Hospital, outside of Washington, D.C. He’s continuing his recovery at Naval Hospital Camp Lejeune, at his home base in North Carolina.
“Those folks at Bethesda are miracle workers,” his father said.
His rehabilitation and physical therapy are now well under way, and it is a demanding, grueling process. The physical therapists are so demanding, his father said, that the wounded soldiers have nicknamed them “physical terrorists.”
There are another 10 months, at least, of therapy and rehab ahead for the younger Pittman. Because of the severity of his injuries, he will never have the full use of his right arm again.
But his son’s spirits remain high, his father said, buoyed by cards and well-wishes from his friends in Effingham County.
“He’s proud of this community. He has a lot of good memories and a lot of good friends,” Pittman Sr. said. “He’s gotten a lot of cards and well wishes, and we just ask for their continued prayers.”
An inspiration, and a hero
During his short chat with the president, the younger Pittman told the commander-in-chief of his desire to be a law enforcement officer — just like his father. He also cited his two other inspirations, Savannah-Chatham Metropolitan Police Department Chief Michael Berkow and Effingham Sheriff Jimmy McDuffie. The president also commended the two Marines for their job, their sacrifice and their patriotism in being Marines, the elder Pittman said.
“It was a very inspiring day,” Pittman Sr. said. “That was an excellent motivation for my son. He needs all the encouraging he can get.”
The White House tour and meeting the president also did wonders for Pittman Sr. But all the credit goes to his son, he said, for getting to meet the president.
“It was all about my son,” the elder Pittman. “We’re proud of this country. We’re proud to be American citizens. We’re proud to be Marines together. I’m real proud of him.
“For so many years, daddy was his hero. Today, he’s daddy’s hero.”