Jim Mayer is well-known in Ward 57 of the Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, D.C. He visits every week to talk with some of the 70 men and women who have lost a limb since the war in Iraq began in March 2003.
Mayer is known to most as the "Milkshake Man" for the treats he brings.
"[The milkshakes are] like a taste of home," Mayer said. "It's just an icebreaker. And then I can start listening and hear what's on their mind and start to become a friend. Nothing really heavy at first."
It often takes three or four visits before Mayer gets a vet to open up, and the conversation turns more serious. It is usually at that time when Mayer reveals that he is a double amputee.
"What's really cool about that is that many of them go, 'Wow, I wouldn't have known if you didn't tell me,' " he said.
Mayer, 58, lost both his legs 35 years ago in the Vietnam War, after stepping on a land mine.
"It blew me straight up in the air and resulted in the loss of both my legs below the knee," he said.
Mayer was just 23 at the time. He had a business degree and has hoped to be an Army clerk, but he was assigned to be a rifleman instead.
"I was wounded immediately. I said to myself, 'I am going to live.' So it's kind of like, 'OK, this is bad. This is not good. But I'm gonna live.' I became determined immediately to get over it," he said.
Mayer began working full time for the Department of Veterans Affairs, and in 1991, during the first Gulf War, he began visiting amputee patients at Walter Reed and Bethesda Medical Center.
In addition to the visits, Mayer recently helped organize a free weekly Friday night dinner at a nearby restaurant open to all patients and their families.
Wounded Soldier Maintains Hope
Mayer believes it's important for injured veterans to maintain contact with the outside world. For young soldiers traumatized by their experience, it is easy to lose hope.
Army Staff Sgt. Roy Mitchell was severely wounded after his vehicle hit an antitank mine in Afghanistan. His long list of injuries includes an amputated leg.
Mitchell came back home to Walter Reed to recuperate — and to his 19-month-old son.
"I can't stand there and support myself and hold my son and pick him up off the ground," Mitchell said. "It just made me realize that my life has changed."
The simplest things in life have to be learned as if for the first time. Mayer serves as an example, reminding the veterans and their families to have faith and that leading a full life is possible.
"Families got it tough, sometimes tougher than the patient," he said. "It's when I turn, and I see the young wife or the husband for the first time. I really have to work to not let on that I see the pain in their face, and I just try to respond to them as a person."
Mayer said he feels incredibly close to veterans and considers them all friends.
"To see those guys overcome what they've overcame, you know, shows us that you're going to make it. You're going to be all right, but you're going to be all right as long as you don't quit," said Mitchell.
Mayer recently participated in a winter sports clinic in Aspen, Colo., where he said 21 patients from Walter Reed skied for the first time, their determination clearly evident.
"I've seen so many amputees and families, and I get an internal sense of reward that makes me feel like a rich guy," Mayer said. "I hope they always call me the Milkshake Man. I like that."