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Italian Ambassador Welcomes Wounded Troops for Dinner

By Paul X. Rutz
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, May 20, 2006 – Beneath the Italian Embassy's clear glass rotunda, wounded servicemembers and their families accepted the ambassador's offer to host them for an evening of food, fellowship and song here yesterday.

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Italian officers speak with American troops and their families at the Italian Embassy in Washington, May 19. The American servicemembers are severely injured patients recovering at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington and the Naval Medical Center in nearby Bethesda, Md. Photo by Paul X. Rutz

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"It's kind of a little token we offer to the wounded to share together a good Italian dish ... and a very deep and sincere friendship," Ambassador Giovanni Castellaneta said.

In March the ambassador offered to host the event, when he heard about weekly dinners held by American veterans for wounded troops recuperating at Walter Reed Army Medical Center here and the National Naval Medical Center in nearby Bethesda, Md.

As it turned out, the Friday night events were about to lose their permanent home at Fran O'Brien's steakhouse. But thanks to help from the Italians and a Washington, D.C., hotel, the dinners have not missed a beat.

"These dinners aren't going to stop," said Hal Koster, former co-owner of the steakhouse and co-creator of the weekly dinners, which have run since October 2003. "These guys have earned a good time and a night out, and everybody says it helps, so we're going to do it. We're very appreciative of the Italian Embassy. It was their idea. They offered, they've followed through with their offer, and we're just delighted to be here tonight."

Koster said he hopes this event kicks off a new Friday dinner tradition for the wounded servicemembers, hosted each month by a different embassy.

Maj. Gen. Pasquale Preziosa, Italy's defense cooperation attaché, greeted troops as they walked, hobbled and rolled into the embassy with a grin. He spoke throughout the evening of his appreciation for their sacrifice.

"Those people offered a part of their bodies, of themselves, for our freedom, and you can see that freedom has got a cost," Preziosa said. "That's the value that I can see this night."

It costs between $4,000 and $6,000 per month to sponsor these dinners, according to Shoshana Bryen, special projects director for the Jewish Institution for National Security Affairs. The nonprofit group has been raising money for troops' welfare in part through Finmeccanica, an Italian defense contractor. The company gave a large donation in 2004 and has been a reliable partner ever since.

Bryen said Finmeccanica and its subsidiaries support a variety of charities. They have reportedly given $76,000 to support wounded troops so far this year.

"We've had tremendous support at the Pentagon from people who find this particular charitable endeavor to be close to their hearts," she said. That includes Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England and his predecessor Paul Wolfowitz, who was on hand for the embassy dinner.

In March, England invited officials from Finmeccanica to the Pentagon for a presentation, and that's how Ambassador Castellaneta heard about the dinners, Bryen said.

"We want to express our thanks for the American commitment in Iraq and more in general on the war on terror," embassy spokesman Luca Ferrari said. "We've seen a lot of charitable events in Washington on many different arguments or issues, on things like cancer or any kind of sickness. But there's also a military side to it.

"This is not a (public relations) event. This is a charity event," he added, explaining that the ambassador gave this dinner at his own expense, employing his personal chef for the occasion.

"It's a good atmosphere," said Army Spec. Michael Stanley as he sat in his wheelchair enjoying lasagna al fono, veal, pork, beef, risotto with zucchini, tiramisu for dessert, and plenty of Italian wine. "I just think it's really cool that the Italian Embassy did this."

The evening also featured a concert of opera and early 20th century standards featuring U.S. Army First Sgt. Antonio Giuliano, a tenor with "Pershing's Own," part of the U.S. Army Band.

"This is my calling, to sing for my fellow servicemembers," Giuliano said. "I'm very indebted to these gentlemen."

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageItalian Maj. Gen. Pasquale Preziosa and Shoshana Bryen, special project director for the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, talk with wounded troops before a dinner at the Italian Embassy in Washington, May 19. Photo by Paul X. Rutz  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageItalian Ambassador Giovanni Castellaneta (center) speaks with a soldier and his family while a pianist plays at a dinner for the wounded servicemembers and their families at the Italian Embassy in Washington, May 19. Photo by Paul X. Rutz  
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