WASHINGTON — Looking thrilled to be among friends and colleagues, Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords returned to Washington on Thursday to attend a Navy retirement ceremony for her husband, former astronaut Mark Kelly.
The visit marks the Arizona congresswoman's second trip to the nation's capital since she was shot in the head last January while meeting with constituents in Tucson. About 30 people, including Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, greeted her and Kelly with a standing ovation as they entered the Secretary of War suite at the Eisenhower Executive Building next to the White House. Giffords walked slowly and with a noticeable limp, wearing running shoes with her suit, but she looked overjoyed to see some of her fellow lawmakers again.
Vice President Joe Biden emceed the ceremony, which included awarding Kelly two of the military's highest awards. Biden had a little trouble pinning the Legion of Merit on Kelly and blamed it on the dim lighting, but Giffords stepped up and had no trouble whatsoever pinning the Distinguished Flying Cross on her husband.
"Gabby did it better than I did," Biden said as the audience laughed and applauded.
Biden made note of Giffords appearance and her near-constant smile, telling her, "You look good, Gabby."
"You've been an inspiration, an inspiration to thousands of people who suffer from traumatic head injuries," Biden said. "... People look at you and say, `I can make it. I can do this.'"
As the ceremony ended, reporters were quickly escorted from the room so there was no chance to ask Giffords questions or for her to make any statements. She did not have extended conversations with colleagues at the beginning of the reception, but she turned to them and waved or blew them kisses when they were introduced. She also wore a heavy brace on her right hand.
Aides said Giffords planned to conduct no congressional business and would return to Houston shortly after the ceremony, where she undergoes rehabilitation therapy.
Giffords has made few public appearances since the shooting. She has not yet made a decision about her political future, but colleagues are raising campaign money on her behalf in case she decides she does want to continue serving in Congress.
Kelly paid tribute to his family and his wife in his retirement speech, telling Giffords, "You make me jealous with your true grit and determination."
Kelly became a NASA astronaut in 1996 and made four trips into space aboard the space shuttle. He commanded three of those missions.
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden Jr., said it was unusual for the vice president to oversee a Navy captain's retirement ceremony, but he said it was appropriate in Kelly's case given his work at NASA and Giffords' service in Congress. Bolden said he was particularly grateful that Kelly agreed to lead the space shuttle Endeavour's final mission in May.
"That, in my estimation, was a courageous move on both their parts considering what she was going through and how necessary he was for her," Bolden said. "But he managed to balance both his professional life and his personal life in helping her through rehabilitation while still helping his crew, which was counting on him for leadership."