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Steakhouse Marks Year Honoring Troops With Weekly Dinners

By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Oct. 16, 2004 – They've been gathering at Fran O'Brien's Stadium Steakhouse in the Capital Hilton here on Friday nights for a year now, but this week was different.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz presents Hal Koster, left, co-owner of Fran O'Brien's Stadium Steakhouse, with the Distinguished Public Service Award. Fran O'Brien's other co-owner, Marty O'Brien, was presented with the same award later. They were honored for hosting weekly Friday night dinners for wounded servicemembers from the National Naval Medical Center at Bethesda, Md., and Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, D.C. The reception on Oct. 15 marked the one-year anniversary of the weekly dinners. Photo by Samantha L. Quigley
  

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

On Oct. 15, a group of injured servicemembers from Walter Reed Army Medical Center and the National Naval Medical Center at Bethesda, Md., were joined by family and friends to be recognized by dignitaries, veterans service organizations and Iraqi citizens.

Hal Koster, co-owner of Fran O'Brien's, opened "A Tribute to U.S. Troops" with praise for the troops he said have become like family.

"These warriors have been coming over and have been as brave in their recovery as the have been in battle. It's been an absolute honor for us to serve them on Friday nights," Koster said. "It's also a pleasure to see them when they get better and they walk out of here and they go home. You know that the country is with you in your recovery, and we wish you well."

Koster and Marty O'Brien later were awarded the Distinguished Public Service Award for their efforts to lift wounded servicemembers' spirits that started with a suggestion from the "Milkshake Man."

Jim "Milkshake Man" Mayer received the award for originally suggesting the idea of "Friday Night Dinners" and his involvement in the program. Mayer, a Vietnam veteran who lost both of his legs, has been taking milkshakes to soldiers at Walter Reed's Ward 57 for more than a year. He also recently made his 200th visit to the medical center, where he has served as a peer-level volunteer for amputees for more than 13 years.

Ryan and Lindsey Kelly know the importance of that peer level connection. Lindsey is a sergeant with the 490th Civil Affairs Battalion out of Abilene, Texas. Ryan, who retired on Aug. 9 after spending 13 months at Walter Reed, was a staff sergeant with the same unit. He was a regular at the dinners until his discharge from Walter Reed and subsequent medical retirement.

"It's a pretty big part of transitioning back into the real world," Ryan said of the weekly dinners. Lindsey had a spouse's unique perspective. "It created a community that allows you to talk to other people and talk about issues that you're going through," she said. "You were able to depend on other people besides just the two of you or yourself. You had other people to console with (and) you had other shoulders to lean on."

Ryan plans to attend the University of North Dakota to earn a bachelor's degree in business administration, focusing on aviation management and commercial aviation.

As the evening progressed, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, a frequent visitor to the Friday night dinners, took the opportunity to thank the men who worked to make the lives of the injured troops a little more pleasant.

"You've given them wonderful free dinners, but that's the least of it," Wolfowitz said. "You've given them a place to meet in the spirit of friendship and comradeship and mutual support." Wolfowitz went on to praise the troops for their efforts, successes and sacrifice.

"We just saw a miracle take place in Afghanistan last Saturday," he said. "Somewhere between 5 (million) and 10 million people voted for the first time in 5,000 years of history, as far as I know. That country's free election would not have been possible if it hadn't been for the sacrifice of American men and women."

He also recognized the award recipients who included O'Brien, Mayer and Air Force Lt. Col. Andrew Lourake, a pilot who chose amputation after years of trying to save his leg damaged in a motocross accident five years ago. Lourake will resume his duties Oct. 25 at the 89th Airlift Wing, Andrews Air Force Base, Md., but he said his peer counseling at Walter Reed is the most important thing he does now.

Lourake's wife, Lisa, also was honored for her work as a peer-level volunteer for the past year at Walter Reed. "She speaks with authority when she tells the newly injured that life is going to change, but that life isn't over," Wolfowitz said.

It was, however, the words of Humaila Akrawy, an Iraqi citizen, that were perhaps the most poignant of the evening. Her sister was killed for working with Americans, her brother was killed by Saddam Hussein's secret police, and another sister was targeted by Uday Hussein and had to be smuggled out of the country.

She spoke of the Iraq's gratitude to America and the troops who helped to free the country and its people from the terrorism of Saddam Hussein. She said the troops are, indeed, winning the war, because if they weren't, the insurgents would ignore them.

"I can never tell you how grateful I am and how grateful my people are for your sacrifice. You left your homes to fight for a people you have never known," Akrawy said. "When the sun sets over the deserts and mountains of Iraq, the good people of Iraq look at the West and are happy to know that the sun is rising to the people who rescued us from the darkness and evil of Saddam.

"Never think that your work in Iraq was wasted," she continued. "Never let anybody to say that you shed your blood in vain. You have given the people of Iraq, of Afghanistan, the chance to be free."

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers offered the closing remarks with praise for the troops, those who support them and those who are carrying on where they left off.

The weekly dinner at Fran O'Brien's Stadium Steakhouse topped off the evening.

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Biographies:
Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers


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