By Linda D. Kozaryn
WASHINGTON, Aug. 20, 2006 – Over the past two and a half years, about 500 severely wounded servicemembers and their families have enjoyed 5,000 free dinners out on the town thanks to Hal Koster and Marty O'Brien. "Some of them have come to multiple dinners because some of them are here for years," Koster said Aug. 18, as he looked over the 60 or so guests dining on the rooftop of The Exchange restaurant here.
About 20 servicemembers, many in wheelchairs and prosthetics, family members and other guests dined overlooking a panoramic view of the U.S. Capitol, and the Washington and Jefferson monuments. Koster, a Vietnam veteran, moved among them like a kindly, white-haired grandfather. "These people have done a lot for us," he said. "They're wonderful people, and it's a pleasure to do this."
Koster and O'Brien are former co-owners of Fran O'Brien's Stadium Steakhouse here. They launched the weekly dinners at their restaurant in October 2003 for wounded troops recuperating at Walter Reed Army Medical Center here and the National Naval Medical Center, in nearby Bethesda, Md.
Since then, numerous volunteers, fellow veterans and other supporters have helped to continue the weekly dinners. Two "peer" visitors hand out dinner invitations to the patients, Koster said. Tim Mayer, a Department of Veterans Affairs employee, lost both his legs in Vietnam. Air Force Lt. Col. Andrew Lourake, who lost one leg above the knee in a motorcycle accident, continues to serve on active duty. "They've gone through training at Walter Reed to learn how to interact with the patients," Koster said. They go see the patients two or three times a week to see how they're doing. They start giving invitations the day the guys hit the ward. It gives (patients) something to look forward to."
Doctors and nurses at the military hospitals also seek invitations for patients. "A doctor will call and say, 'There's a patient here; I think he needs to get out. Would you please give him an invitation?'" Koster said. "The nurses at Ward 58 (for traumatic brain injuries) will say, "There's a family here and their son or daughter can't come out yet, but the family needs a night out, would you please invite them.'
"We've been doing this long enough now," he said, "that most of the people at Walter Reed know about the dinners, so if they see a person they think really could benefit from a night out they'll give us a call and we'll give them an invitation." Once they get an invitation servicemembers call a reservation line. "They have to call in by Wednesday afternoon so we know how many buses to get, how much food to get," Koster said.
When Fran O'Brien's lease was cancelled and the restaurant closed in early May, the dinners literally became a moveable feast. "We go from place to place," Koster said. "The Italian ambassador hosted one. We're going to be at the former Taiwanese ambassador's residence next week. The Capitol Hill Club does one a month. The Hamilton Crown Plaza Hotel does one a couple of times a month or whenever we don't have a place."
Some host the dinners while others pay the bill, he noted. The Armed Forces Foundation, for example, sponsors dinners hosted once a month at the Capitol Hill Club. Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne hosted one at the department a couple weeks ago; VA leaders sponsored that dinner.
"A few months ago, sponsors paid for a dinner hosted here at the Exchange Restaurant," Koster said. "Tonight, The Exchange is hosting and sponsoring the dinner -- they're actually donating the dinners." Taking a short break from excitedly running hither and yon feeding his guests oysters and prime rib, Exchange owner Jimmy Nicopoulos said he begged to have the opportunity to serve the wounded veterans. "I just had to do it," he said.
A Washington, D.C., native who's moved no more than two blocks in 46 years, Nicopoulos said his brother was an airborne ranger who now works for the Defense Department in Europe. "That's as close to the military as I have had the privilege of being." When government officials eating at The Exchange congratulated Nicopoulos for hosting the first dinner, he felt their praise was undeserved.
"I didn't do anything, I was sponsored," he stressed. "So I said I'm going to do one myself so when they congratulate me I don't feel like an idiot. Now I can say, 'Yes, I did, and I thank you, and I'm doing it again because it was cool.' The next one I want to do burgers and sloppy joes -- something a little fun. Throw fries around, a couple pickles, cole slaw, something a little bit more picnicy."
Nicopoulos said it's hard to find words to describe what occurs at the dinners. "It's so much fun," he said. "To look at parents' eyes when they see their kids a little bit happy -- 'a little bit' meaning that they're out of the hospital, they're in a new environment and there's hope. That's so satisfying.
"It just feels good," he said. "It's right. You can't describe it. You've just got to feel it and then you walk along with a smile."