Steakhouse Marks Two Years of Friday Nights With Troops
By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Oct. 31, 2005 Fran O'Brien's Stadium Steakhouse in the Capitol Hilton here was the place to be Oct. 28, as the restaurant owners expressed appreciation for the troops and had the favor returned.
Gordon England (center), acting deputy defense secretary, talks with Robert Barden (left) and Eric Franklin at the Fran O'Brien's Stadium Steakhouse Friday Night Dinners Reunion Celebration in Washington on Oct. 28. Barden retired from the Army after being injured in Balad, Iraq. He now lives and works in Elmore, Ala. Franklin, who retired from the Navy, works with the National Cemetery Administration and is living in Springfield, Va. Photo by Samantha L. Quigley
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
"Tonight this is about reunion and thanks," Gordon England, acting deputy secretary of defense, told the group of about 230 people. "But it's primarily about thanks."
Gordon presented steakhouse owners Hal Koster and Marty O'Brien with framed letters expressing his gratitude and that of President Bush, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marine Gen. Peter Pace.
The "Friday Night Dinners Reunion Celebration" marked two years of Fran O'Brien's providing free steak dinners every Friday night to wounded troops from Walter Reed Army Medical Center here and the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. Patients from the two medical facilities, some of whom have left the medical centers, and family members were on hand to celebrate the milestone.
"It's just an honor to be around (the troops)," Koster said, adding that the dinners won't stop as long as there are still troops in need of the morale boost the evenings away from the hospitals provide. "The doctors have said (getting away from the hospital) speeds healing. We see that a little bit ourselves."
The troops agree with their doctors. Several said that their first dinner at the restaurant reintroduced them to a sense of normalcy.
"It's the biggest motivator," said Army Sgt. Mike Sanchez, sporting a hat that summed up his story in two words, "Blown Up!"
"It just makes you feel whole again," Sanchez said.
Army Staff Sgt. Josh Olson, back on active duty with the Army Marksmanship Unit after recovering at Walter Reed, said the dinners allow patients to get away from the monotony of the hospital and connect with people in similar situations. Olson started attending the dinners in November 2003, just after the tradition began.
"It's gives us some time away from the hospital where the soldiers can come and talk about their problems and tricks of the trade, if you will, especially for amputees," Olson said, adding that this dinner was special because he hadn't seen some of the attendees in two years. "We kind of grew up together," he said.
Organizations that support troops, New York firefighters, and Iraqi-Americans were among those who made their appreciation for the troops known throughout the evening. Veterans Affairs Secretary James R. Nicholson expressed thanks on behalf of his department.
"I am here representing the 235,000 people that work at the VA with one mission in mind, which is to take care of our veterans," Nicholson said. "We're there to serve you and take care of whatever you need for the rest of your life. (This dinner) is for us to all come together and show the love and the respect and the bond that we have for our fellow veterans."
Some attending to honor the troops found themselves in the spotlight.
"There has been one person who has done an enormous amount for the soldiers. (He) has been a regular visitor on Friday nights and has gone to an enormous effort to make sure that the severely injured soldiers get treated properly and handled in an expeditious manner," Koster said in announcing an award for Paul Wolfowitz, the former deputy defense secretary who now heads the World Bank.
Wolfowitz said that while the meal was appreciated, his attendance nearly every Friday night is because of his respect for the injured servicemembers.
"It's a wonderful bunch of people. It's inspirational to get to know you guys, ... the way you overcome challenges," Wolfowitz said. "(Friday nights are) a chance to say, 'thank you' for remarkable service to our country. It doesn't just make the United States better and safer; it makes the whole world better and safer."