A Veteran Tour Guide

Capitol Tour Expert Bert Caswell Shows Soldiers Their Heritage

Posted November 7, 2008 at 4:01pm

“This is the greatest building in America,” the Capitol tour guide told his audience. “It’s even better to see it at night. When the lights go down, the history comes up.”

Bert Caswell, a Baltimore native and one-time teacher, is a wonky history buff and well-suited for the job of taking visitors through the Capitol and its hallowed halls. In tours that can last

for hours, Caswell expounds on his affection for the building and its architecture, mixing in details about late-night legislating and VIP visits.

And when Congressional business is complete for the day and staffers and visitors have headed home, Caswell shares his love of the Capitol with a group that makes up one of his other great passions: veterans. Given special permission for after-hours tours by the House Sergeant-at-Arms, Caswell escorts groups of patients from Walter Reed Army Medical Center and their families.

“This is the city that reminds us why we’re free, and they are the ones who have fought for our freedom,” Caswell said. “To wear that uniform is the most honorable thing.”

On a recent tour with an Army couple from Texas, Daniel and Danielle Saucedo, Caswell went through his spiel with verbosity that colleagues say is characteristic of the man who cannot spew Capitol tidbits fast enough. He talked fast and moved quickly, but he also stopped in his tracks at several spots to share some of his favorite stories.

Daniel Saucedo, a 33-year-old Army staff sergeant, was shot in the leg last summer during a raid in Iraq. He severed an artery and shattered his pelvis, and he has undergone several surgeries since arriving at Walter Reed Aug. 1.

On the night Caswell took the Saucedos through the Capitol, Daniel sat quietly in a wheelchair, taking in the scene with bright eyes while his wife, Danielle, 28, took pictures of every entryway, staircase and statue. Though the tour lasted more than three hours, the couple seemed to savor it all.

“It was so much to take in, I couldn’t believe it,” Daniel said. “I had no idea there was so much.”

Caswell made sure they got a full dose of both historical facts and fun trivia.

“I had lunch one day in this room with Goldie Hawn and her daughter Kate Hudson. Nicest people,” Caswell told the visitors as they passed the House dining room.

He barely paused as he walked through the Capitol’s decorative halls. “These paintings were done by [Constantino] Brumidi, an Italian genius who immigrated here and offered his wonderful skills to our Capitol. Beautiful, aren’t they?” The Saucedos nodded quietly, pointing and taking pictures.

Although Caswell was never in the military, he views his off-duty tours as a way of giving back to the veterans he greatly admires. He wears his Congressional identification badge on an Army lanyard, and on his evening tours with Walter Reed veterans, he reminds his guests of what they mean to the Hill community.

When he escorted the Saucedos around the Capitol, Caswell introduced his guests to the lingering staffers in the hallways with a hearty “Hey there! This is one of our soldiers, just got back. Isn’t that great?”

“The Members love it when I bring soldiers around. It’s like a bright light in their day,” Caswell went on. “You just really remind all of us of what it means to sacrifice for what you believe in.”

Caswell’s guests get VIP tours that include peeks into leadership offices and unknown rooms. On this tour, Caswell showed the couple Minority Whip Roy Blunt’s (R-Mo.) dark-wood office overlooking the Library of Congress and the Supreme Court. It seemed to be a refreshing break for the late-working Blunt staffers, who welcomed the guests and pointed out details.

“Veterans all have different stories, and everyone can relate to them somehow,” said Blunt’s scheduler, Michelle Hawks. “We have so much to learn from them. They’ve seen it all.”

For many veterans, Walter Reed hospital is the Washington they visit. Popular spots such as the Capitol and Smithsonian museums are lesser priorities during rounds of surgeries and treatments.

Soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan suffering from brain injuries or post-traumatic stress disorder receive inpatient treatment for weeks or months, barely leaving their hospital rooms.

The 700 or so receiving outpatient treatment have much more flexibility, and the hospital organizes tours and dinners through its events office, under Sandy Halmon’s enthusiastic leadership. Halmon said Washington Redskins games and Pentagon tours are popular, as are comedy shows and dinners at local restaurants.

“Our food here is fine, [but] someone always wants to get off-site for a meal,” she said. “We really stress our patients to not just sit in their rooms.”

So does Caswell, who encourages the veterans to soak up the history and symbolism of Washington during their stay at Walter Reed.

“This is the city that reminds us why we’re free. What a great honor to experience the history here and have [people] come up to you and thank you.”

And on the night of the Saucedos’ tour, some did. “Thank you so much for all you do. We really appreciate it,” a Capitol Police officer said.