Heaven for Wounded Vets

There are 20 steps from the street to the steak house, which might seem no small matter for young veterans who have lost their legs to war.

But the stairs that lead down to Fran O’Brien’s Stadium Steak House are not just another obstacle to the hundreds of GIs severely wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan who have labored up and down them over the past two years.

Instead, for those whose future plans exploded the moment they were maimed, the steps _ and the landmark restaurant they lead to _ are a welcome-mat back to normal life.

“My first dinner was the first time I felt like I was home,” is the way Sgt. Steve Clark, who lost his arm to Iraq combat, describes the experience.

Virtually every Friday evening since 2003, the upscale restaurant three blocks from the White House has opened its doors to the young vets who are patients at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.

In a restaurant where a T-bone goes for $30 a pop, each recuperating vet gets a full-course feast, plus whatever libations they choose, for free.

While a thick steak is ambrosia to those who have lived on institutional food for months, it is the atmosphere as much as the food that feeds the 50 or so troops and family members who partake each week.

Fran’s is a haven for those young men, in the prime of life, who are self-conscious about their missing limbs, disfigured faces and other battle scars. Here, in a private banquet room, the wounded gather with their bandages, casts, crutches and still-clumsy prosthetics.

There they find camaraderie, mutual support and, commonly, a lot of laughs. It’s a night out like they enjoyed before they went to war. No one stares at them and no one will let them sink into self pity, said Staff Sgt. Joshua Olson, now 26, who lost his right leg up to the hip two years ago when an enemy rocket hit his truck in Tal Afar, Iraq.

“You have to decide if you’re going to lay in bed or get up and live,” said Olson, who remains in the Army, where he’s on the service’s competitive shooting team. His goal now? The Summer Olympics.

Olson says going to Fran’s is a therapeutic exercise in resuming a normal life. Boarding the bus that takes the vets to the restaurant, negotiating the stairs and a crowded restaurant, using a regular restroom, and, for some, eating one-handed or with prosthetics _ all are part of the rehabilitation process, according to doctors and others who help guide these troops back to the real world.

And for those whose spirits are dulled by depression and pain, or the monotony of months of slow recovery, Steak Night is often the only thing they have to look forward to each week. Hal Koster, a co-owner of Fran’s, says one patient with a traumatic brain injury would leave his Walter Reed room voluntarily only to go to the restaurant. Over time, Koster said, the vet came back to life.

A bear-like, big-hearted man who did three tours in Vietnam on a helicopter gunship, Koster, 59, wants no publicity for his efforts and shrugs off questions of how much it has cost him and co-owner Marty O’Brien, son of the famous Washington Redskin who opened the restaurant. But extrapolating from the menu, the bill for each Steak Night can be close to $3,000.

The two absorbed the full cost for the first several months, but now it is covered at least in part by donations drummed up by the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, the Help Our Heroes Foundation, the American Legion and other veterans service organizations. The Disabled American Veterans provides the bus.

Koster credits fellow Vietnam vet and longtime Fran’s patron Jim Mayer with conceiving the dinners. A double-amputee himself, Mayer is a “peer counselor” at Walter Reed, where he cajoles, teases and comforts those newly limbless who think life is over. A natural comedian, Mayer’s been known to skip down the hospital halls on his prosthetic legs to make his point that it isn’t.

Both Mayer and Koster said their purpose is a simple one: to ensure that these kids are treated better than they were when they came home from Vietnam. Ask any of the dozens of vet alums who gathered recently at Fran’s for a two-year anniversary celebration and they’ll tell you, emphatically, that it has been a godsend.

“It’s the greatest thing. It lets you be normal,” said Cpl. Bobby Isaacs, 24, who lost one entire leg and the other one below the knee after an ambush in Mosul, Iraq. After 39 surgeries, he’s now an outpatient in North Carolina, but said he wouldn’t have missed the reunion at Fran’s for the world. With him he brought his fiancee, a prosthetics technician he met during his rehabilitation.

Attending as well were several Iraqi-Americans who came to thank the troops for their sacrifices. So did Debra Burlingame, sister of the pilot of the jetliner crashed by hijackers into the Pentagon on Sept. 11. With her was John Vigiano, a retired New York City firefighter whose two sons, one a firefighter and the other a police officer, died at the World Trade Center.

In return, the GIs thanked everyone who helped them during recuperation. Staff Sgt. Chris Bain, a father of three whose arms were left useless after a mortar attack, said he had particular appreciation for John Sommer, executive director of the American Legion and a Vietnam vet. Sommer and his wife had “adopted” Bain and other wounded vets, and brought them to his suburban Washington home for afternoons of brats, beer and football.

Former deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz drew the biggest applause and cheers from the troops that night. Now head of the World Bank, Wolfowitz showed up at Fran’s Friday after Friday during his term, often spending three hours so he could talk to each vet individually and helping to cut through Pentagon and VA bureaucratic bogs the troops sometimes found themselves in.

Though Wolfowitz is reviled by those against the Iraq war for his role in precipitating it, he is a hero to these troops who _ to a man or woman _ not only continue to support the U.S. mission but say they would sign up to fight all over again if they could.

“In a heartbeat,” Sgt. Olson said.

(Contact Lisa Hoffman at HoffmanL(at)shns.com)