In 2005 Bennett Levin, a fellow railroad car owner, created the concept of operating a special train named the Liberty Limited as a way to honor wounded warriors. His idea was to assemble a train of privately owned passenger cars to transport wounded warriors in grand style from Washington, D.C. to Philadelphia to attend the traditional Army-Navy game.
While trying to come to grips with the tragic loss of my wife of 42 years due to a catastrophic car accident in June, I was inspired to respond to a call for private railcar owners to participate in such a special event on Dec. 11.
As a trustee of the War College, Bennett had the connections to pursue such a plan. Both Walter Reed Army Hospital and Bethesda Navy Hospital enthusiastically supported the idea. Amtrak, CSX, and Conrail were joined by other corporations as sponsors of the event.
The first successful trip in 2005 was followed by a second in 2006. There were three basic rules. No politicians, no media and no senior officers. In short, this was for the sole benefit of the wounded warriors and their families.
Circumstances precluded the operation of another Liberty Limited until this year. When I learned that Bennett was taking on the incredible burden of organizing another of these special trains I knew I had to participate. Two good friends from Payson; Andy McKinney and Roscoe Dabney III, agreed to help operate my private car, Pony Express, and provide on board service to the guests on the train.
The Pony is a former Canadian Pacific Baggage — Express — Horse car that has been converted into a party car complete with antique bar, wood paneling, a parquet dance floor and lounge area. With its open space and big side doors it was designated as a support car. We handled and stored wheelchairs, and retained medical staff and onboard security. The wounded warriors were provided first class lounge and dining accommodations in the other 18 cars.
The Pony Express left its home base in Winslow, on Dec. 5. We were coupled to Amtrak’s Southwest Chief and arrived in Chicago on Dec. 6. A railroad yard mishap delayed departure for one day. We spent a second cold day in Chicago arriving in Washington a day late.
Amtrak, Washington, was aware of our situation and serviced and inspected our cars on arrival Dec. 9. We were switched into the train in plenty of time for the event.
The Liberty Limited was spotted on two tracks on the upper level of Washington Union Station. The train was split in two because it was too long to fit on one track. We boarded wheelchair warriors through side doors on the Pony and used Amtrak’s special narrow aisle chairs to move the passengers to an adjacent car for more comfortable seating.
Army and Navy MDs were positioned in the Pony with medical supplies. Support personnel were positioned throughout the train. There were no medical emergencies on this trip.
A Special Operations Unit of the Amtrak Police Department was also positioned on the Pony.
Our train was pulled by Bennett Levin’s two streamlined 1951 passenger diesels. These historic units are painted in the Pennsylvania Railroad’s classic Tuscan Red livery and helped enhance the image of travel in a bygone day.
On arrival, the train was switched into a CSX yard adjacent to Lincoln Financial Field where the game was played. The warriors, their families and medical staff were bused a short distance to the stadium.
When our special guests were off the train, the car owners and staff serviced the train and prepared for the full dinner that would be served during the return journey.
Navy won their ninth straight game 31-17. Even though Army lost, our Army guests enjoyed the day away from the hospital and were in good spirits. The medical staff also enjoyed their time away from the hospital routine for a day.
After some emotional goodbyes, our guests departed and the train was taken back to the Amtrak Ivy City yard to be serviced and switched out.
The Pony and three other cars departed for Chicago on Dec. 13. During the return trip we traveled through an intense snowstorm. We departed Chicago for Winslow Dec. 15 on the Southwest Chief. Snow found us again in New Mexico. We arrived in Winslow Thursday, Dec. 16 — 12 days and 5,000 miles later.
This was a truly memorable and therapeutic experience. We all felt honored and humbled to be able to participate. These wounded warriors are very special people and deserve all of the respect and support we can give them.
Stan Garner is longtime Payson resident who rents railroad cars to movie studios and other people.