Wounded servicemembers fill plates, nourish spirits at weekly Steak Night
April 22, 2005
Photos by Joe Gromelski / S&SDeputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz talks with Sgt. Brian Doyne of Fayetteville, Ga., during the weekly gathering for wounded troops at Fran O'Brien's Stadium Steakhouse in Washington, D.C., on April 15.Capt. Marc Giammatteo of West Hartford, Conn., samples the appetizers.
Wounded servicemembers and their relatives gather for the weekly Steak Night at Fran O'Brien's. At the far side of the table, Brig. Gen. Frank Helmick talks with Spec. Robert Hunt.Sgt. Chris Cook, a National Guard medic from Waukesha, Wis., was one of the wounded servicemembers who visited Fran O'Brien's on April 15.Among those on hand for the weekly Steak Night at Fran O'Brien's on April 15 were, left to right, Spec. Robert Hunt, Cpl. Tim Ngo and Sgt. Jeff Petry.Fran O'Brien's Stadium Steakhouse co-owner Hal Koster tends bar during the weekly Steak Night.Sgt. Wayne Scott talks about his experiences in Iraq during a visit to Fran O'Brien's.Capt Marc Giammatteo talks with Secretary of Veterans Affairs R. James Nicholson.Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz signs an autograph for Sgt. Nathan Smith of Whitefield, N.H.
WASHINGTON, D.C. — It’s Friday at Fran O’Brien’s Stadium Steakhouse in the basement of Capital Hilton hotel, just blocks from the White House, and there’s a party in the back room where the discreet dark of the main restaurant suddenly gives way to a glare of light, smoke and noise.
At first glance, it looks like a typical gathering of military members and their families.
But look again: The young men with close-cut hair gathering around the bar are deftly managing casts, bandages and prosthetic limbs as they bum cigarettes and tell jokes.
And many patrons juggle crutches along with their plates as they line up at a buffet of silver dishes, piled high high with T-bone steaks, prime rib, and fresh salad.
These wounded veterans are the guests of honor, enjoying a night out as they undergo medical rehabilitation at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, or National Naval Medical Center at Bethesda, Md.
In less than two years, Steak Night at Fran O’Brien’s has become a cultural landmark for veterans of the war on terror.
The weekly dinner is the brainchild of Fran O’Brien’s co-owner Hal Koster and his friend and fellow Vietnam veteran Jim Mayer, who used to come to happy hour at the restaurant after his workday at the nearby Department of Veterans Affairs.
Mayer, who lost both legs to a land mine in Vietnam, has worked for 10 years as a “peer counselor” at Walter Reed’s Ward 57, where the hospital’s amputee patients are placed.
In the fall of 2003, with injured vets continuing to stream into Walter Reed from Iraq and Afghanistan, Mayer asked Koster if he and his partner, Marty O’Brien, would be willing to provide a few free meals for Ward 57 patients and their families.
“‘I think it would help them heal quicker to have a night out,’” Koster said Mayer told him.
Hal and Marty agreed, and after a slow start — the sponsors had initially forgotten to find volunteers to provide transportation to and from the hospital — the dinners quickly became popular events for the recovering vets.
Steak Night at Fran’s also became familiar to many readers of the cartoon strip “Doonesbury,” thanks to creator Garry Trudeau. He said he heard about the dinner during his first visit to wounded soldiers at Walter Reed in spring 2004, and decided to visit Steak Night for himself.
What he observed, he said Tuesday in an e-mail, was “a rare respite [for wounded vets] from the rather intense business of getting better.”
“Since [veterans] are surrounded by family, caregivers and fellow amputees, they can let down their guard, blow off a little steam, and reconnect to the ordinary pleasure of an evening out with good food, drink and company,” Trudeau wrote. “For some soldiers, going to Fran’s is their first foray back into public life. For others, it’s their first chance to have a few drinks and kick back a little.”
At the time, Trudeau was heavily involved in describing the ongoing recovery at Walter Reed of B.D., the “Doonesbury” character who lost a leg in during an attack in Iraq.
In October, the cartoonist decided to pen a series of strips that used Fran O’Brien’s as a backdrop.
“When you’re describing a journey that takes place largely within a hospital complex, after awhile you need the relief of a different setting,” Trudeau wrote. “Steak Night allows me to show them in a different context towards the end of their stay” at [Walter Reed].
“Transitions are always the most interesting part of life,” Trudeau wrote.
But as popular as Doonesbury is among troops, it is not B.D.’s endorsement of Fran O’Brien’s that packs the back room of the restaurant every week with 60 to 70 guests, Koster said April 15.
“It’s soldier helping soldier,” Koster said last Friday. “They make it what it is. We don’t do anything but give them a room and some food to eat and let them know we care.”
“It’s not just the meal, although the food is great,” said Capt. Marc Giammatteo, who was enjoying his 10th Steak Night. “You’re sitting at a table where you can’t see below, where the injuries are. It takes you back to where you and who used to be,” the 27-year-old West Pointer said.
Giammatteo lost most of his lower right leg to a grenade when his squad was ambushed outside Rawa and Annah in Iraq on Jan. 8, 2004. He said he eventually became resigned to the fact that amputation was preferable to the pain of keeping his shredded limb.
“When it was first suggested to me” that a prosthesis might offer him far more mobility than the remaining leg, “the thought of amputation was a profanity,” Giammatteo said.
But after 30 surgeries and complication after medical complication, reality has settled in, Giammatteo said.
“It’s not coming back,” he said with bitter humor.
Giammatteo’s matter-of-fact attitude towards his impairment is mostly typical.
As Trudeau noted, “There’s not much self-pity in evidence” at Fran O’Brien’s.
“These are soldiers whose lives have been scrambled, irrevocably altered, but they are for the most part actively engaged in reinventing themselves,” the cartoonist wrote. “They are very forward-looking, and some of them will even return to service in the military.”
That includes Giammatteo, the young officer said, adding that he is determined to try for a teaching post at West Point.
But in the meantime, there’s Steak Night, “where it’s nice to sit down and not deal with it,” Giammatteo said.
Giammatteo’s double-digit attendance is somewhat rare at Fran O’Brien’s. Most of the guests attend Steak Night “three or four times” before they are discharged from the military hospital, Koster said.
“You see some pretty devastated bodies come through here, but we know they’re going to get better,” he said.
Some guests, such as Staff Sgt. Chris Cook, come to the party during their initial therapy, then end up coming back when they have medical complications that demand a second stint at Walter Reed.
A 36-year-old National Guard medic from Waukesha, Wis., Cook was injured on the road between the Baghdad airport and the Green Zone on Sept. 11, 2004.
The 36-year-old father of two and fellow medical personnel were waiting on the side of the road for an IED to be cleared ahead when Cook saw a car racing towards the group.
More than 13 years of military training kicked in, and Cook raised his M-16. He aimed for the windshield and fired. The suicide bomber’s vehicle promptly exploded, throwing Cook into the side of his own Humvee and breaking both his legs.
Thirteen surgeries later, Cook is a regular at Fran O’Brien’s. He said he values the opportunity because “you can relate to people.
“Only other veterans can understand” what it’s like to be in combat, Cook said. “I close my eyes every night and see that explosion. Group counseling really helps, but this [dinner] is a wonderful way for us to be brothers.”
Sgt. Wayne Scott, an Army Reservist from Wichita, Kan., nodded from the next table.
Scott looks like a weightlifter from the front.
But when he turns around, a thick, raised scar runs from the base of his skull down his neck and into his loose white football jersey. His spine and left shoulder were badly damaged when his truck flipped in Iraq last June -- but his worst scars aren’t visible.
Scott said he doesn’t sleep more than three or four hours a night, even though his doctors recently doubled his nightly dose of tranquilizers.
He hears a door slam, “and I think of mortars.”
His recovery process “hasn’t been bad, but it hasn’t been great,” Scott said slowly. “I see [Steak Night] as part of my therapy. The more I talk about it, the better it will get.”
Thanks to his own rehab, as well as his 10 years’ experience with younger wounded vets, Mayer understood a reality voiced by many Steak Night veterans: Despite the best efforts of dedicated staffs, those sterile, institutional walls close in awfully fast.
“It’s very limited, as far as what we can actually do,” said Spc. Robert Hunt, an Ashland, Ohio, National Guardsman who has been at Walter Reed since October, when he was medically evacuated from Iraq with an injured back.
Hunt’s friend, Chief Warrant Officer 3 Thomas Blackmoore, who lost hearing in his right ear and sustained major back injuries when he fell in a hole while working at Camp Arijan, Kuwait, ticked off the options.
“You can watch TV,” Blackmoore said. “You can sit on your bed.”
“I go to therapy two times each week, and I do vocational rehab two times,” said Sgt. Wayne Scott, an Army reservist from Wichita, Kan. “Then I just wait to go to [Fran] O’Brien’s.”
To help defray the costs of feeding prime-aged steaks to so many people, several groups have stepped up to the plate to help — particularly the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA), which has raised almost $100,000 by tapping major defense contractors such as Rolls Royce, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and General Dynamics. Another major contributor is the Veterans of Foreign Wars Unmet Needs Program, which has pledged $25,000 to the dinner. Rolling Thunder, Inc., has contributed $2,500.
Fran O’Brien’s regular patrons have been known to buy the entire back room drinks, or offer donations on the spot as soon as they realize the identity of the Steak Night revelers, Koster said.
Even diners who don’t pull out their wallets will often buttonhole veterans on their way back and forth to the restrooms to thank them, or even break into spontaneous applause.
Such salutations “go a long way towards reassuring soldiers that they continue to enjoy the support and gratitude of their fellow citizens,” Trudeau wrote.
Steak Night guests also hear the praises of a steady stream of “distinguished guests,” including prominent government officials from the Veteran’s Administration and Defense Department, as well as Hollywood and sports celebrities.
On April 15, for example, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, who was recently named head of the World Bank, was making one of his final appearances at Fran’s in his official capacity at the Pentagon.
“I really have a good time here,” Wolfowitz told the crowd. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s the best company in town.”
Wolfowitz said he marvels at “the way you work about getting on with your life in the face of challenges that frankly would daunt most people.”
That’s a typical reaction, Trudeau noted.
“We never think we can cope with extreme adversity, and we are often in awe of people who do,” Trudeau wrote. “But the life instinct is profound. … People generally do what they need to do to prevail.”
“The soldiers at Walter Reed prove it every day.”