So, they organized a trip to bring soldiers from
The cool part is they created their own train line to do it. Yes,
there are people in this country who own real trains and Bennett Levin,
a native Philly guy and a self-made millionaire 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
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
"We wanted to give them a first-class experience," says
Bennett. "Gourmet meals on board, private
transportation from the train to the stadium, perfect seats “real hero
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 laughs.
Over the next months, he recruited owners of 15 other sumptuous
rail cars from around the country into lending their vehicles for the
day (these people tend to know each other).
The name of their temporary train? It was “The Liberty
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
A benefactor from the
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, and
From Gear; down jackets.
There was booty not just for the soldiers, but for their guests,
too, since each could 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
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
It was all about these kids. It was awesome to be part of
The most poignant moment for the Levins was when 11 Marines
hugged them goodbye, then sang them the Marine Hymn on the platform at
"One of the guys was blind, but he said, 'I can't see you,
but man, you must be 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 God bless the troops, every single one.