Pentagon producer Mary Walsh wrote us this afternoon about a remarkable dinner, with an even more remarkable guest list. -- Ed.
It turned out two Vietnam veterans – Jim Mayer, a double amputee from that war and Hal Koster, a co-owner of a popular nightspot – had come up with the idea of giving grievously injured soldiers a break from Walter Reed hospital food with a free night on the town.
There were plenty of reporters, myself included, who wanted to come in to meet the troops. But Koster was the gatekeeper and you had to pass muster with him first – he made you agree to his ground rules: you can't bother the soldiers or their families while they're eating and you are forbidden to mention the name of the restaurant.
"We didn't want the troops to think we were trying to build business on their backs," Koster said. "We were just trying to help the troops."
The result was some pretty artful writing by CBS News correspondent David Martin when he did his first story on "the most exclusive dinner party in Washington" being held "a few blocks from the White House."
But like most things in Washington, this secret wouldn't keep for long, not when soldiers who had lost a leg or an arm wanted to broadcast that going to Fran O'Brien's Steakhouse was just about the only fun thing in their lives.
"This is something we look forward to every week," Mike Walcott, who survived a mortar attack, told David Martin. "Mondays through Thursdays are hard days. Friday's an easy day because of Fran O'Briens."
A year and a half after that interview Koster and his co-owner Marty O'Brien lost their lease and Fran O'Brien's closed. At the last Friday night dinner Marissa Strock, an Army private and a double amputee as a result of roadside bomb, walked up the steps of the restaurant on her new prosthetic legs – the first time she had walked up steps on those legs. Everyone cheered Marissa; they knew it was an ending and yet a beginning.
And so it was for Hal Koster. He had created the non-profit Aleethia Foundation to support the dinners, so he kept them going, moving around town from one restaurant or hotel to another. (The Italian Embassy even hosted the wounded troops one night and everyone said it was the best food ever.)
Disabled American Veterans continued to provide transportation and the regulars – including Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau – kept showing up on Friday nights to spend time with the troops.
But then something happened that turned this story of inspiring good will into something that looked like an attempt to cash in on wounded soldiers. Marty O'Brien went to the press to announce that patients from Walter Reed would be returning to his restaurant when it reopens in January. He hadn't talked to anyone with the Aleethia Foundation but the story made headlines anyway – and the Friday night dinners turned into a food fight in the blog-o-sphere.
While military bloggers were congratulating O'Brien and his new partners for welcoming back the troops, Ramona Joyce of the American Legion let loose a fusillade against them. "No one is sure if the "New" Fran O'Brien's is trying to get business publicity and/or possibly donations out of their former tie to the Friday Night Dinners," she wrote. "Supporters of the REAL Friday Night Dinners won't let that happen on the backs of our wounded heroes! The TRUE Friday Night Dinners are run by the guys who actually started them and never let them falter."
Imagine a parade of wheelchairs coming off a bus with troops looking forward to a precious night away from the probes of nurses and needles, grinding physical therapy and repeated surgeries. Imagine a young father trying to balance an infant on a lap where there is no knee. Imagine being at a dinner party where men with missing limbs say to each other "When are you going to get your new arm?"
You might think all that is sad – but when you meet these young men and women you discover they challenge and inspire you in ways you never imagined. Their bodies are shattered now but they did not leave their courage behind on the battlefield; they use it everyday to conquer the challenges that face them now. What's sad is the idea of someone using them to try to get publicity for a new restaurant.
One note about the Aleethia Foundation – "aleethia" is Greek for truth. As Koster says, "the truth about wars is casualties and casualties need help."