Webmaster note: The below article was published in the magazine section of the Washington Post on New
Years Day 2004. Hal Koster, a gunner/crewchief in the Dolphins and Sharks from 67-69, is co-owner of the upscale
Washington DC restaurant, FRAN O'BRIEN'S STEAK HOUSE. It is in the Capital
Hilton Hotel on 16th St. NW. It is three blocks from the White House. They have parking on
L St. just a half a block from their outside entrance on L St. Phone is 202-783-2599. They have a web site
that gives their menu and directions. See www.franobriens.com.
Hal says that during the week, reservations
are strongly encouraged. On Saturday and Sunday, reservations are not necessary. Way to go Hal, we're proud of you!
(Webmaster personal note here, Char and I
visited Hal at his restaurant awhile back, and I had absolutely the best Filet Mignon I have EVER had. Their specialty.
Strongly recommended! ~Jim McD.)
One soldier hopped about on his only leg, flirting with women at the bar. Other soldiers missing legs
rolled across the room in wheelchairs, comparing notes on their therapy. Spec. Robert Acosta cut his steak
with a knife wedged in the hooks at the end of his prosthetic arm.
The soldiers, all wounded in Iraq and recovering at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, were gathered at a Washington steakhouse for a treat courtesy of several Vietnam veterans.
Jim Mayer, the ringleader of the older veterans, volunteers regularly at Walter Reed's orthopedic ward, dispensing encouragement and cheer to the amputees. Mayer knows something of the subject, having lost both his legs to a land mine in Vietnam in 1969.
One of Mayer's friends is Hal Koster, co-owner of Fran O'Brien's Stadium Steakhouse. Koster, who served as a helicopter door-gunner (in the 174th Assault Helicopter Company) from 1967 to 1969 in Vietnam, told Mayer to spread the word at the ward that the recuperating soldiers were welcome at the restaurant as his guest.
Mayer started inviting wounded soldiers in the ward, but at first nobody showed up. Finally, in October, one soldier showed, then another. Then eight or 10 came. It became a regular Friday night gathering, with enough to fill one long table, then two. At the last dinner before Christmas, the group eating steaks and drinking beers filled up four tables and included nurses and therapists from Walter Reed.
"It got a life of its own," Mayer said. "It's like a weekly community."
"No one was here when we came back," said Ed Meagher, another Vietnam veteran who has helped organize the gatherings and who, like Mayer, works for the Department of Veterans Affairs. "We all got together and said, 'It isn't going to happen a second time.'"
It's a costly gesture for the restaurant, but for Koster, the bottom line is simple. "It seems to help these guys," he said. "That's what it's all about."
The soldiers are deeply moved by the reception they receive at the restaurant, including from other diners. "Some of the regulars will get up and give us their chairs when we come in," said Staff Sgt. Larry Gill, 43, an Army reservist from Alabama who suffered a severe leg injury in a grenade attack and is concerned about being able to resume his job as a police officer.
One of the soldiers at a recent gathering was Sgt. Erick Castro, 23, of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, who lost a leg when a rocket pierced the M1l3 armored personnel carrier in which he was riding. Despondent when he arrived at Walter Reed, Castro saw matters in a new light after interacting with some of the older veterans.
"When you first get to the ward, you say, 'I'm screwed for life: Then you see these guys," he said, gesturing to Mayer.
The dinners are an exercise in mutual support. "You celebrate the little victories," Mayer said. A quick recovery from surgery or a good week of therapy are cause for cheer.
Castro, a native of Mexico who grew up in California, shared his piece of good news: Earlier that week, he became a U.S. citizen.
As dinner concluded, Mayer offered a toast to Castro and his new citizenship. There were calls for Castro to give a speech.
Castro rose to his feet and kept it short: "Proud to be an American," he said.
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