General leads Night Wing, cheerleaders on morale tour at VA hospital

TAMPA, Fla. -- The deputy director of the Joint Staff's Strategic Plans and Policy Directorate at the Pentagon went on a mission April 6 to raise the morale of patients at the James A. Haley Veterans' Hospital in Tampa and brought along the Heartland of America Band's Night Wing ensemble and cheerleaders from the 2008 NCAA Women's Final Four Teams.

Brig. Gen. Michelle D. Johnson led the band members and cheerleaders through the halls of the hospital to lift the spirits of wounded American servicemembers.

General Johnson is the most decorated female athlete in U.S. Air Force Academy history.
She was selected by NCAA officials to speak to women athletes and participate at numerous NCAA events before the 2008 NCAA Women's Final Four basketball tournament.

The general visited many servicemembers at the hospital, which houses hundreds of injured military members. General Johnson brought cheerleaders from the University of Tennessee, Stanford University, Louisiana State University and the University of Connecticut.
General Johnson said she felt the trip was very rewarding and enjoyed watching the college students interact with the patients.

"We got a chance to see how our wounded warriors are being cared for," she said. "It was fabulous to see these young people, who really haven't done this before, reach out to the patients and reinforce that America 'hasn't forgotten about you and we appreciate what you have given.'" 

Patients also were treated to music performed by the Air Force Heartland Band's country/rock showcase ensemble called Night Wing. The group played acoustically, which allowed them to roam the halls of the hospital and entertain military members throughout the medical center.

Master Sgt. Douglas Montera, the NCO in charge and drummer for the group, said he enjoyed seeing the effect the music had on the patients.

"The best thing is the immediate feedback," Sergeant Montera said. "We have a job where we play live music for people and we don't have to wait a week to see how we did.

We get to see the smiles on the faces and the tapping of feet."

Morale visits are the perfect medicine for his patients, said Dr. John Merritt, chief of spinal cord injury at the hospital. He said one of the primary challenges of the hospital staff is to make sure patients don't feel isolated and lonely. He said he could see a positive change in his patients following a visit.

"It is a tremendous benefit to have visits like this," Doctor Merritt said. "It helps patients identify with the community and gives an immediate lift. It gives them a break from all of the mundane exercise and therapy they have to do."

One of the patients who enjoyed the show was Army Sgt. Mark Lalli. The sergeant suffered a traumatic brain injury in a UH-60 Blackhawk crash during a training mission in Italy. After spending the first four weeks following the crash in a coma, the sergeant has worked hard to start walking again. He said it felt good to have visitors, and seeing fresh faces helps fuel his recovery.

"Just having these guys here and listening to the music has been awesome," he said. "The support I have seen here has been great and undying. It feels good to know I haven't been forgotten."

Sergeant Montera said it is extremely important that heroes like Sergeant Lalli don't have to recover by themselves. He said it made him feel good to see how passionate the staff at the hospital is about taking care of their patients.

"I think the most important thing, after winning the war on terrorism, is to make sure these individuals who have sacrificed so much for their country are well taken care of," he said. "We have seen here today just how caring the nurses and doctors are here. These heroes deserve the best and that is just what they are getting here."