Friday, January 11, 2008

This is a true story, occurring in December 2005, verified in snopes. This article is by Ronnie Polaneczky, and was published in the Philadelphia Daily News on December 22, 2005.



December 22, 2005:

Here's a 'today' Yule story that occurred 3 weeks ago ~ AND NOW, in
time for the holidays, I bring you the best Christmas story you never

It started last Christmas, when Bennett and Vivian Levin were
overwhelmed by sadness while listening to radio reports of injured
American troops. "We have to let them know we care," Vivian told
Bennett. So they organized a trip to bring soldiers from Walter Reed
Army Medical Center and Bethesda Naval Hos pital to the annual
Army-Navy football game in Philly, on Dec. 3.

The cool part is, they created their own train line to do it. Yes,
there are people in this country who actually own real trains.
Bennett Levin - native Philly guy, self-made millionaire and irascible
former L&I commish - is one of them.

He has three luxury rail cars. Think mahogany paneling, plush seating
and white-linen dining areas. He also has two locomotives, which he
stores at his Juniata Park train yard. One car, the elegant
Pennsylvania , carried John F. Kennedy to the Army-Navy game in 1961
and '62. Later, it carried his brother Bobby's body to D. C. for
burial. "That's a lot of history for one car," says Bennett.

He and Vivian wanted to revive a tradition that endured from 1936 to
1975, during which trains carried Army-Navy spectators from around the
country directly to the stadium where the annual game is played. The
Levins could think of no better passengers to reinstate the ceremonial
ride than the wounded men and women recovering at Walter Reed in D. C.
and Bethesda , in Maryland . "We wanted to give them a first-class
experience," says Bennett. "Gourmet meals on board, priva te
transportation from the train to the stadium, perfect seats - real
hero treatment."

Through the Army War College Foundation, of which he is a trustee,
Bennett met with Walter Reed's commanding general, who loved the idea.
But Bennett had some ground rules first, all designed to keep the
focus on the troops alone:

No press on the trip, lest the soldiers' day of pampering devolve into
a media circus.

No politicians either, because, says Bennett, "I didn't want some
idiot making this trip into a campaign photo op."

And no Pentagon suits on board, otherwise the soldiers would be too
busy saluting superiors to relax.

The general agreed to the conditions, and Bennett realized he had a
problem on his hands. "I had to actually make this thing happen," he

Over the next months, he recruited owners of 15 other sumptuous rail
cars from around the country - these people tend to know each other -
into lending their vehicles for the day. The name of their temporary
train? The Liberty Limited.

Amtrak volunteered to transport the cars to D. C. - where they'd be
coupled together for the round-trip ride to Philly - then back to
their owners later.

Conrail offered to service the Liberty while it was in Philly. And
SEPTA drivers would bus the disabled soldiers 200 yards from the train
to Lincoln Financial Field, for the game.

A benefactor from the War College ponied up 100 seats to the game - on
the 50-yard line - and lunch in a hospitality suite.

And corporate donors filled, for free and without asking for
publicity, goodie bags for attendees:

>From Woolrich, stadium blankets. From Wal-Mart, digital cameras. From
Nikon, field glasses. From GEAR, down jackets.

There was booty not just for the soldiers, but for their guests, too,
since each was allowed to bring a friend or family member.

The Marines, though, declined the offer. "They voted not to take
guests with them, so they could take more Marines," says Levin,
choking up at the memory.

Bennett's an emotional guy, so he was worried about how he'd react to
meeting the 88 troops and guests at D. C.'s Union Station, where
the trip originated. Some GIs were missing limbs. Others were
wheelchair-bound or accompanied by medical personnel for the day.
"They made it easy to be with them," he says. "They were all smiles on
the ride to Philly. Not an ounce of self-pity from any of them.
They're so full of life and determination."

At the stadium, the troops reveled in the game, recalls Bennett. Not
even Army's lopsided loss to Navy could deflate the group's rollicking

Afterward, it was back to the train and yet another gourmet meal -
heroes get hungry, says Levin - before returning to Walter Reed and
Bethesda . "The day was spectacular," says Levin. "It was all about
these kids. It was awesome to be part of it."

The most poignant moment for the Levins was when 11 Marines hugged
them goodbye, then sang them the Marine Hymn on the platform at Union

"One of the guys was blind, but he said, 'I can't see you, but man,
you must be f---ing beautiful!' " says Bennett. "I got a lump so big
in my throat, I couldn't even answer him."

It's been three weeks, but the Levins and their guests are still
feeling the day's love. "My Christmas came early," says Levin, who is
Jewish and who loves the Christmas season. "I can't describe the
feeling in the air." Maybe it was hope.

As one guest wrote in a thank-you note to Bennett and Vivian, "The
fond memories generated last Saturday will sustain us all -
whatever the future may bring."

God bless the Levins.

And bless the troops, every one.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The trip was repeated on 2006 but could not be done in 2007 since the game was played in Baltimore.