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News | April 2, 2024

‘Footsteps to Freedom’ exhibit saluting troops, families opens at Walter Reed

By Bernard Little

They were worn in combat, in the deserts of Afghanistan and other far-away places.

They were worn by troops injured in war and others who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country.

And now, they are on display as part of an honored art installation on Naval Support Activity Bethesda, home to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

“Footsteps to Freedom” (FTF) pays tribute to service members, many who served in the War in Afghanistan, and their families, with creatively revitalized combat boots.

U.S. Navy Capt. (Dr.) Melissa Austin, WRNMMC director, joined other dignitaries, including veterans who served in Afghanistan, family members of service members who lost their lives in the war, and founders and sponsors of FTF, to cut the ribbon on the art installation April 1.

More than 20 artistically-designed boots make up the FTF art installation in Tranquility Hall’s atrium.

“I’ve been watching these boots materialize throughout the hospital over the last couple of months, and to see it come together in a single installation is absolutely amazing,” Austin said. She added that the exhibit serves as “a tribute to the healing journey, and strength born of unity and support.”

Austin shared that the exhibit “reflects a commitment to honoring the sacrifices and valor of wounded warriors, and that not every wounded warrior has visible wounds. It’s important to recognize so many of them are suffering in silence, and we stand with them as well.”

Walter Reed is committed to “cultivating a healing environment for all wounded warriors and their families, inspiring impactful conversations, and fostering an interconnection with our community because we know healing is all about community,” Austin added.

Amy Zambrano and Winnie Pritchett, with the assistance of government officials and charitable sponsors, helped to make the FTF art installation a reality. Their group began by providing iPads to wounded warriors recovering at Walter Reed nearly a decade and a half ago. Since then, more than 13,000 iPads have been provided to service members thanks to numerous donations from the community and others.

Zambrano explained that in 2014, she saw a painted cowboy boot while in North Carolina and was inspired to create the combat boot exhibit.

“We started letting iPad recipients know that if they had old combat boots, they could ship them our way,” she explained, adding that this request resulted in them receiving numerous boots, many with notes and some with dog tags.

“We started recruiting artists from all over the world [especially those in the Miami area where she hails, to revitalize the boots],” Zambrano continued.

"By bringing together the creative talents of different artists, from famous artists such as Shepard Fairey and Romero Britto, to tattoo artists and art teachers, and drawing attention to the sacrifices made by Soldiers, this project is a powerful and enduring way to pay tribute to the fallen, express gratitude, and raise awareness about the importance of freedom and patriotism, and honoring the sacrifices of our heroes," Zambrano shared in a recent interview with her local newspaper. She added that bringing the art installation to Walter Reed was pretty much a no-brainer.

“We knew here, specifically in Building 62 [where many of the outpatient service members and their families live during their recoveries], would be a constant reminder of the service and sacrifice of the troops and their families,” she explained.

Army Master Sgt. Andrew Burge attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the art installation at Walter Reed and shared a letter he wrote nearly a decade ago titled, “In These Boots….”

In part, the letter states, “In these boots, I have bled. These are the boots that carried me through times of great despair. I have been shot in combat wearing these boots, but these boots brought me back to my feet and allowed me to fight on. When I gaze upon these boots, it takes me back to a time of unforgettable pain, suffering and loss, friends I’ll never see again. The memories of looking down at these boots through tears and sorrow, as names of Soldiers are called out, but they are not present for duty because they have made the greatest sacrifice a Soldier can make. But I love these boots. These boots are a constant reminder of not only the bad, but the good as well. I see these boots, and I see the faces of friends long gone and relive the memories of good times in the worse conditions. That bond that never goes away. These boots are a reminder of the unselfishness of Soldiers and the measures we are prepared to take in order to preserve the safety of one another and our loved ones back home.”

Retired Army Master Sgt. Cedric King, wounded during his second tour in Afghanistan on July 25, 2012, served as guest speaker for the ceremony.

“Friendship means a lot to me. It helped me get through this,” said King, injured by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan that claimed both his legs, and caused permanent damage to his right arm and hand.

“Walter Reed, please know this, you all helped me get through this,” King said, adding that his recovery at the medical center took more than three years. “Walter Reed was a part of my family’s lives. So many of our family pictures are at Walter Reed, and this place taught me so many lessons.”

He said one of those lessons was to relinquish his victim mentality and that he was not powerless in determining the course of his life.

“I learned the power of perception and that others were going through similar, if not more challenging circumstances. It wasn’t just me,” King said. “Others weren’t complaining about their circumstances, so I found it in my heart not to complain. Walter Reed taught me to get back up again, not just in walking, but in life. Have the courage and take a chance on yourself. If you fall, get back up again. Through the falls, there’s strength being cultivated. The best you is emerging.”

King explained how he took a chance on himself, tackling and completing the Boston Marathon while still recovering at Walter Reed. He added that during this first marathon, half-way through it -- 13 miles into the 26-mile event -- he started to run out of gas.

“Maybe for you, it’s also a race, a career, or a marriage,” he added.

“At mile 13, something inside of me said, ‘Hey, you only got 13 more miles to go.’ But those 13 miles might have well been a million miles because when you’re on empty and you’re tired, however long you have to go seems so far away that it’s unattainable. This is how you find out who you really are. You’ve got to keep moving,” King added.

He kept moving and finished that marathon, and to date, he has completed four of six of the world’s major marathons – Chicago, Boston, New York City, and Berlin, and 23 full marathons overall, making him one of three double amputees in the world to accomplish this feat.

“If life has knocked you down, there are people waiting on you to see if you quit or keep marching,” King said. “So many people are counting on you to keep moving because they want to keep moving, too. Keep marching. Keep smiling. Keep encouraging others.”
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