FORT BELVOIR, Va. – The luxury railroad car Pennsylvania has seen its fair share of two things: precious cargo and the Army-Navy football rivalry.
In 1961 the red Pennsylvania Railroad business car carried John F. Kennedy from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., along a temporary rail line put in place for the gridiron classic. Kennedy chose to take the car to the annual football game again in 1962.
This year, the Pennsylvania carried more than one guest of honor as it began a familiar trip Dec. 6 from Washington’s Union Station to the 107th Army-Navy game. The car was part of “Liberty Limited 2006,” an 18-car vintage train filled with wounded Soldiers, Sailors and Marines from Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington and Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland, who all dined in style during the trip.
Philadelphia native and Pennsylvania railroad car owner Bennett Levin credits his wife Vivian with coming up with the idea. Startled by news reports of injured troops returning from war, the couple decided to express gratitude for their service.
Invoking their enthusiasm for vintage locomotives, the Levins worked tirelessly in coordination with Amtrak, Conrail and more than a dozen railroad car owners from all across the United States. They wanted to revive the tradition of temporary rail lines across the country established to bring fans to the game.
Eighteen railroad car owners volunteered their services to create a first- class experience for the 132 injured service members as they traveled from Washington to Philadelphia to attend the game. Eric Levin, the Levins’ son and a Conrail engineer, operated the locomotive leading the train to its destination.
Defense Logistics Agency employee John Deasy, a Navy reservist and railcar owner, emphasized that the focus of the day was solely on the service members aboard.
“The first priority is the recuperating wounded veterans themselves,” he said, quoting Levin. “It’s about them.” Along with the help of former DLA employee Joe Maloney, Deasy offered top-notch service to the 11 Soldiers on his car, the Mount Vernon.
The service members aboard the Liberty Limited 2006 made an immediate impression on the volunteer staff.
“All the guys were extraordinarily positive,” said Army Sgt. Maj. Lawrence Lane, who volunteered along with several other members of his family. “One Marine named Mike lost both eyes to a bomb blast, but he is one of the most inspiring guys to be around. He’s the kind of guy who lights up a room by walking in.”
Charles Jensen, Lane’s brother-in-law, remembered Cpl. Michael Jergin from the 2005 maiden voyage of the Liberty Limited. This year, Jergin traveled from Florida to attend the game.
“The best thing about Mike was to be able to see how far he has come since last year, physically and mentally, and to talk with him about all of the things he is doing with his life,” said Jensen, whose railcar was also part of the Liberty Limited 2006 train.
When the train arrived at Greenwich railroad yard, members of the Philadelphia Police Department were waiting to escort Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority buses to Lincoln Financial Field, where Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, in one of his last public appearances, took the time to individually greet and embrace each injured service member who entered the stadium.
Lane said the group received a heroes’ reception.
“It was very emotional, with lots of happiness, pride and patriotism,” he said. “I think these troops realized how much their sacrifices were appreciated.”
Wrapped in jackets and blankets embroidered with the Liberty Limited logo, the service members and medical support staff cheered on the game from their seats on the 50-yard line. Bennett Levin, chuckling, recalled Jergin, who sat in the Army section waving a big Marine flag he had taken from the train and attached to his walking stick.
Jack’s Deli, a Philadelphia caterer, donated lunch for patients who had to remain on the train during the game. Jim Daly, a New Jersey state trooper, donated an additional 200 embroidered shirts and hats for each Walter Reed and Bethesda patient from Iraq and Afghanistan who was not well enough attend the event.
“He didn’t want them to feel that their injuries precluded them from having participated,” Levin said.
“I was happy to find that the whole thing was arranged by a bunch of donors who weren’t concerned about credit or publicity,” said Lane. Despite Levin’s request that no members of the press or politicians participate in the event, the Liberty Limited received enough donations, many anonymous, to serve all of the crew and support staff who made the event possible.
The volunteers aboard the Liberty Limited 2006 appreciated the opportunity to honor the sacrifice and service of their injured passengers.
“A Soldier named David lost a significant piece of his arm to an improvised explosive device,” Lane said. “I will never forget the look of absolute happiness he kept on his face as he walked around what we found out was his first train ride.”
Levin recalled the mother of a Marine who had recently returned from Iraq and approached his wife toward the end of the trip.
“This makes me think people do care, after all,” she said, embracing Vivian Levin. “This is the gift that keeps on giving,” her husband added.
With the 108th annual Army-Navy football game scheduled to occur at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, the Liberty Limited will remain at the Juniata Terminal Co. facility for now. The Levins have not yet decided whether they will run the special train for next year’s match up.
DLA provides supply support, and technical and logistics services to the U.S. military services and several federal civilian agencies. Headquartered at Fort Belvoir, Va., the agency is the one source for nearly every consumable item, whether for combat readiness, emergency preparedness or day-to-day operations. More information about DLA is available at http://www.dla.mil/.