In 2003, two Vietnam veterans, Hal Koster and Tom Maier, resolved to do what they could to help the badly wounded soldiers who were beginning to arrive at Walter Reed Hospital from the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Koster, then co-owner of Fran O’Brien’s Stadium Steakhouse in the Capital Hilton Hotel in downtown Washington, D.C., began sponsoring weekly dinners for the soldiers at the restaurant, and Maier, an official at the Veterans Administration, coordinated transportation and logistics.
For the wounded soldiers, the weekly outings became eagerly anticipated escapes from the confined hospital space, multiple surgeries and arduous rehabilitation that they had to grapple with on a daily basis.
The weekly dinners continued at Fran O’Brien’s for almost three years.
In 2006, however, the managers of the Capital Hilton Hotel declined to renew the lease with Fran O’Brian’s, leaving Koster and Maier out in the street. Unwilling to disappoint the troops, the two men quickly put out the call for sponsor help so the dinners could be held elsewhere. A number of individuals, clubs, corporations, foundations, embassies and restaurants stepped forward to take up the slack.
The Friday dinners continued without missing a beat. The evening events begin with a one-hour reception and are followed by a steak dinner with all the fixin’s, accompanied by music designed to please the young people.
Many times cabinet officials and well-known celebrities attend and mingle with the troops. Speech-making, however, is kept to a minimum, the objective being to allow the wounded soldiers and their family members to relax and enjoy themselves in an informal environment. The dinners are not cheap. Each Friday event costs between $3,000 and $4,000 to cover the meals for the wounded veterans and their family members.
Labor of Love
To help defray the cost, Koster established the Aleethia Foundation to raise funds to underwrite the dinners and to provide other services to the wounded soldiers and their families.
“Now,” Koster says, “we frequently get inquiries from wounded soldiers who are going through a difficult time financially, and we frequently give small grants of $2,500 or so to help with setting up a household or a mortgage payment or to help cover other short-term emergencies.”
To date, Koster and Maier figure they have helped 600-700 wounded soldiers and Marines through their efforts and provided an estimated 8,000 dinners over the past four years, involving an enormous amount of work.
But for Koster and Maier, it’s a labor of love.
“It really gives you a great feeling,” Koster says, “to see how we’ve helped these guys to relax and take their minds off their problems and to heal better.”
“Sometimes,” he says, “the people at Walter Reed will tip him off about a soldier who is depressed and reclusive,” and Koster and Maier will try, usually successfully, to get him involved in the Friday get-aways.
“Sometimes it makes a remarkable difference,” Koster says. “One father told me that he thought we had saved his son’s life.
“That really made me feel good.”
Helping as Long as There’s a Need
Koster and Maier intend to continue helping the wounded soldiers as long as there is a need — which will probably be for years to come.
“One soldier has been with us for four years,” Koster says, adding, “We’ll be here as long as it takes.”
Those who want to support the Walter Reed wounded warriors program can send their tax-deductible contribution to:
The Aleethia Foundation
1718 M St. NW
Washington, DC 20036