WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was all smiles as she pinned a medal on her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, at his retirement ceremony today in the nation's capital.
About 50 people gathered in the Secretary of War Suite in the Eisenhower Executive Building for the ceremony, at which Vice President Joe Biden presided.
Kelly, a Navy captain, came in with his family, including daughters Claudia and Claire Kelly, his mother, Patricia Kelly, Giffords, and Giffords' mother, Gloria Giffords. There was prolonged applause.
Giffords, who blew air kisses to some of the guests, waved excitedly when her mother and Kelly's mother were introduced to the audience. The congresswoman's friends and colleagues Nancy Pelosi and Debbie Wasserman Schultz were in the first two rows.
The visit marked Giffords' second trip to D.C., and one of her few public appearances, since she was shot in the head and critically injured last January while meeting with constituents in her Tucson district.
She is still limping and wearing a brace on her right hand — traumatic brain injuries such as hers affect motor skills — but she stood up without assistance for the Pledge of Allegiance. She wore glasses, a red blazer, black pants and running shoes, and her hair has grown in a bit since her last appearance in the capital, on Aug. 1.
One of Kelly's daughters helped award Kelly the Legion of Merit, and Biden helped pin it on his jacket twice since it came loose the first time.
Giffords got up on her own to help present her husband with the Distinguished Flying Cross medal, which he earned for commanding the fourth and final flight on the space shuttle Endeavour. She pinned it on his jacket with her left hand. Biden pointed out that she did a better job with the pinning than he did.
Biden said he was honored to officially retire Kelly. Kelly and Giffords asked that he perform the ceremony, he said.
"As vice president I get to work with an awful lot of people who devote their lives day to day to public service," Biden said. "But it's not everyday you encounter examples of sheer, sheer courage, selflessness and dedication, like you see in this couple.”
He said Kelly has “commendations galore,” including top decorations given by the Pentagon and NASA. He noted that service is a Kelly family tradition. Both of Kelly’s parents were police officers and Kelly’s identical twin brother, Scott, is also an astronaut.
He commended Kelly for leading the Endeavour space shuttle in May and spoke directly to Giffords, saying she is an inspiration to thousands of people who suffer from traumatic brain injuries.
“I don’t use the word loosely. You are an inspiration. You’ve been inspirational, people looking, saying ‘I can make it, I do this,’” Biden said.
Kelly was the final speaker, saying there is no greater friend and no worse foe in the world than the U.S. Navy.
"Thank you for giving me the opportunity to fly in space not just once but four times," he said. "NASA is the example of scientific research, development and success and must remain a permanent part of the fabric of this great country."
For himself and Giffords, it has “truly meant a lot to us” to have so many people “in our corner,” Kelly added.
“Gabby and I want to thank you for your boundless friendship and optimism as our family has traveled this road over the last eight months,” he said.
He gave flowers to his daughters and to his wife — a bouquet of pink tulips for her.
“Gabby, you remind me everyday to deny the acceptance of failure,” Kelly said. “I look forward to the next phase of our life together and watching all of your future achievements.”
Giffords was not expected to go to Capitol Hill or conduct any congressional business during this visit. She arrived in D.C. on Wednesday and left to fly back to Houston after the ceremony and reception. This is the sixth time Giffords has left Houston since arriving there in January for her rehabilitation. She has made no announcements about her political future.
The Arizona Daily Star was at today's ceremony and will provide full coverage in Friday's Arizona Daily Star.