America Supports You: Steak Night Treats Vets' Toughest Injuries

By Paul X. Rutz
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, May 1, 2006  - For the past two and a half years, veterans of wars past have been helping heal the latest generation of wounded troops every Friday in a basement steakhouse here.

Fran O'Brien's, a low-lit, sports-themed place with red leather chairs, wood paneling and hundreds of signed photos lining the walls, has become a source of healing for many troops as they convalesce in nearby military hospitals. The restaurant closed this weekend, but its owners, Hal Koster and Marty O'Brien, have vowed to keep putting on their free steak dinners at other locations.

Some troops have been coming to steak night since it began in October 2003. "We call them seniors," said Koster, a Vietnam veteran. "They're mentors to the newly injured; they have a job other than just drinking all my beer."

One of those soldiers, Army Sgt. Wasim Khan, lost both legs in Baghdad during the invasion in 2003. "I was one of the first ones to come here," he said.

"When I was in the hospital, I didn't talk to anybody at all," Khan said. "I was worried, angry, mad, upset, depressed. But once I started getting out here, I saw the changes in me. I started talking to people, socializing with my own people, military people."

Khan said he continues to find valuable therapy in talking with veterans from the Vietnam and Korean wars. "They told us their stories about when they came back home," he said. "Those 'Nam vets are doing their best to give us the best possible care and facilities out there."

Having attention and support from all over America makes him feel very lucky, Khan said, but he knows it took work to change America's attitude: "They don't want us to go through what they went through. ... The older vets, they said, 'This is not going to happen to this generation of veterans.'"

Army Staff Sgt. Chris Bain, another of the "seniors," suffered severe arm injuries in April 2004. He said he comes to steak night every week and does his best to pass his good attitude on to the new guys: "I still can't cut my food, so you know what? I purposely sit next to somebody who doesn't have legs. You know why? Because I'm all, look, you got two great arms and great hands. ... You cut my steak. I'll get your food. That's what it's all about."

When he doesn't have physical therapy, Bain said he tries to give back to the older veterans, especially the owners of Fran O'Brien's. "I come down and ask Hal if he needs any help: 'Hal what can I do for you? You give so much to the troops, and it means so much to us and me.' ... Hal and Marty both are just the greatest individuals I've ever met."

At his restaurant's final Friday dinner, April 28, Koster said a change of location would be a difficult thing for some troops because his restaurant kept them from feeling out of place. "The regular customers that we have are accustomed to seeing people without legs and arms, some of the things that maybe the general public isn't," he said.

For the next month, the dinners will be held at a hotel in downtown Washington, except on May 19, when the Italian embassy will take a turn. "I think the troops would enjoy that," Koster said. "We're trying to set up something nice for them, and if they like it, great. If they don't, we'll change it because the dinners are for them."

Koster talked to several reporters April 28 as he and his staff made final preparations to receive young people in wheelchairs and prosthetics. The restaurant's bar filled with regulars, including veterans and members of troop support organizations such as Rolling Thunder and Disabled American Veterans.

When the wounded troops arrived, carefully negotiating the stairs into the basement, reporters were given some time to chat with them. Then everyone but the troops and their families were asked to leave the dining area, and the doors to the room were closed. Koster said in March 2004 he stopped letting reporters view the dinners "because the troops don't want that. They're here to relax."

The dinners began in October 2003, soon after the conflict in Iraq started, he said. Jim Meyer, a veteran wounded in Vietnam, came to Koster and said he thought troops would heal better if they could get a night away from the hospital. Buying some dinners for the troops and their families seemed like a great thing to do.

Koster said he's seen some incredible recoveries happen between the time troops arrive for their first dinner and the weeks following. "We have a young man now, Brian Anderson, who's only been down here twice," he said. "He lost both legs and an arm, and he's up walking. He's got his two prosthetic legs, and his one prosthetic arm, he's got a pair of crutches, and he's out getting around. Just absolutely outstanding in that short a period of time."

Collaboration with local troop support groups has been a great help to the weekly events, Koster said. Some rent busses and provide other logistical support, while others get the word out to troops at Walter Reed Army Medical Center here and the National Naval Medical Center in nearby Bethesda, Md.

Koster said he will do his best to help provide the same welcoming atmosphere as always when the weekly dinners move to new places, hopefully allowing troops to become relaxed in the new environment.

"What we're trying to do is get the new guys that aren't that comfortable with their amputations or their face disfigurations or whatever their injury is, and they don't have the strength necessarily to get out and go to a regular place," he said. "First time out of the hospital, they're not strong yet, but they're determined, and that's important."

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