Save America's Steakhouse

This column was written by Shoshana Bryen.
Few Americans would argue that American soldiers should not receive the thanks of our nation for their service, and fewer still would argue that, if returning to our country less than whole and in need of help, soldiers should not receive the support of America's corporate giants.

Hilton Hotel Corporation, then, has something to answer for.

Every Friday is Veterans' Day at Fran O'Brien's Stadium Steakhouse in Washington, D.C., where owners, Hal Koster and Marty O'Brien, bring soldiers — primarily amputees — recovering from their wounds at Walter Reed and Bethesda Naval Hospital to the restaurant and treat them and their families to a full steak dinner. It is often the first place soldiers appear in public after losing limbs and it is a coveted part of their therapy. You can see the progression — new attendees hang out mainly in the private party room; regulars migrate to the bar in the main part of the restaurant, mingling with patrons and buying drinks.

But Fran O'Brien's is located in the Capital Hilton Hotel and the lease ran out in December. The owners had been asking for a new lease since the fall and management had been assuring them it would be renewed. Two weeks ago, they were given until May 1 to vacate.

There are two possible scenarios, and neither says much for Hilton.

Scenario number one says Hilton is worried about a lawsuit. The hotel is in violation of Americans With Disabilities Act. Hilton has not made the basement restaurant ADA compliant — part of the lease negotiation was to have been for the replacement of a non-working escalator in the Hilton lobby with an ADA-compliant elevator. Since there were no negotiations, there is no elevator. The soldiers have been using a steep stairwell or the service elevator. Perhaps Hilton doesn't know that there have, in fact, been several accidents, but the soldiers, being soldiers, are more interested in dinner than lawsuits.

ADA noncompliance is illegal, but more importantly, it is shameful when the chief victims are veterans who have been injured in service to our country. But the compliance issue is the better of the two possibilities.

Scenario number two is that Hilton is uncomfortable with so many wounded soldiers passing through its lobby on the way to the restaurant and worries about the impact it will have on the hotel guests.

Hilton's website proudly boasts of its corporate philanthropy and starts its paean to itself with, "We at Hilton recognize our responsibility to corporate citizenship wherever we do business." How better to be responsible corporate citizens than to continue to house Fran O'Brien's and the wounded soldiers it serves?

Hilton has been inundated by calls and e-mails from Americans who are appalled to see veterans treated shabbily by a corporate giant. The Capital Hilton's website Monday — for a few hours — announced the eviction of Fran O'Brien's as "strictly a business decision" and that the hotel had offered to host a dinner for the troops on May 5. But by evening, the notice was gone and the website had its usual advertisement for the restaurant.

Col. Jonathan Jaffin, at the time commander of the medical corps at Walter Reed, wrote of the dinners:

The benefit to these soldiers and their families is incalculable... While the steak dinner is in itself a treat for those who have been eating in a dining facility... the meal is so much more than a dinner: it is a night out, a chance to get away from the hospital environment for a few hours, an evening to do something as normal as going to a restaurant for dinner. Even more, it is a tangible demonstration of the support, respect, and even love that Americans feel for our troops.

Hilton Hotels should be doing everything it can to ensure that our soldiers have a safe, friendly, ADA-compliant Fran O'Brien's as a "tangible demonstration of the support, respect and even love" that a corporate giant can show to our troops. Anything less is unworthy of a major American corporation.

Shoshana Bryen is director of special projects for the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA), a proud supporter of the Fran O'Brien's Friday-night dinners.
Reprinted with permission from National Review Online