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VFW Magazine January 2013 : Page 16

HEALING CONNECTIONS Every Friday, wounded warriors from Walter Reed National Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., gather for a steak dinner. But the dinners provide more than a meal—they offer hope to wounded, injured and ill service personnel. On Nov. 2, 2012, VFW’s National Military Services sponsored the dinner, which included 30 Marines from the Wounded Warrior Regiment’s Warrior Athletic Reconditioning Program in Quantico, Va. B Y K ELLY G IBSON WOUNDED WARRIOR DINNERS PRESENT D 16 • VFW • JANUARY 2013 espite the cold, four volunteers stood outside the National Press Club building in Washington, D.C., waiting to welcome a bus of wounded warriors. But inside, warm conversation bubbled from a full ballroom. Families and troops gathered around in small groups, laughing, sharing stories and making new friends. While the location changes each week, this is a typical Friday night for many of these men and women, thanks to a group called the Aleethia Foundation. The non-profi t group provides steak dinners for wounded, ill or injured troops from Walter Reed National Medical Center. Based in Washington, D.C., the Aleethia Foundation has been doing so since 2003 by pooling donations from various spon-sors—corporate backers as well as a number of veterans service organizations. And VFW has been there since the beginning, sponsoring two to three dinners per year for a grand total of $28,000 so far. In 2003, Hal Koster, a Vietnam veteran who spent 27 months in-country between 1967-1969 as a helicopter door gunner with the 174th Assault Helicopter Company, was approached by a buddy from Vietnam. The man—himself a double amputee— often visited Walter Reed’s wounded warrior ward, and wanted to do something more for the wounded troops. “If these wounded warriors can get out of the hospital for an evening, even if their continued on page 18 ➤

Wounded Warrior Dinners Present Healing Connections

Kelly Gibson

Every Friday, wounded warriors from Walter Reed National Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., gather for a steak dinner.But the dinners provide more than a meal—they offer hope to wounded, injured and ill service personnel. On Nov. 2, 2012, VFW’s National Military Services sponsored the dinner, which included 30 Marines from the Wounded Warrior Regiment’s Warrior Athletic Reconditioning Program in Quantico, Va.

Despite the cold, four volunteers stood outside the National Press Club building in Washington, D.C., waiting to welcome a bus of wounded warriors. But inside, warm conversation bubbled from a full ballroom.Families and troops gathered around in small groups, laughing, sharing stories and making new friends.

While the location changes each week, this is a typical Friday night for many of these men and women, thanks to a group called the Aleethia Foundation.The non-profit group provides steak dinners for wounded, ill or injured troops from Walter Reed National Medical Center. Based in Washington, D.C., the Aleethia Foundation has been doing so since 2003 by pooling donations from various sponsors— corporate backers as well as a number of veterans service organizations. And VFW has been there since the beginning, sponsoring two to three dinners per year for a grand total of $28,000 so far.

In 2003, Hal Koster, a Vietnam veteran who spent 27 months in-country between 1967-1969 as a helicopter door gunner with the 174th Assault Helicopter Company, was approached by a buddy from Vietnam. The man—himself a double amputee— often visited Walter Reed’s wounded warrior ward, and wanted to do something more for the wounded troops.

“If these wounded warriors can get out of the hospital for an evening, even if their Care-givers can get out for an evening, it would help the whole healing process,” said Koster, a VFW life member of Post 2562 in Silver Spring, Md.

So the men hosted a dinner at Koster’s former D.C. restaurant, Fran O’Brien’s Stadium Steakhouse. When the restaurant closed, the group continued to meet at various locations thanks to outside sponsors.

“Once you start dealing with these fi ne young folks, you can’t stop,” Koster said.

“They’re wonderful to be around. It’s great to see their can-do attitude.” The dinners are important to attendees because each GI is in a different stage of the healing process. For some, the wounds are still fresh. For others, they have been healing and adapting for years. But the opportunity to share their experiences and emotions is priceless for all involved.

GETTING ‘OFF THE EDGE'

Joshua Lopez has been attending dinners with his mother, his wife and his 8-month-old son for a few months now.

It wasn’t long ago—April 2012—that Lopez was serving with the 2nd Bn., 5th Marines, in northern Helmand province.Attached to the 20th Afghan National Army (ANA) in a six-man sniper unit, Lopez received a radio call for support.After taking heavy fi re, Lopez accompanied a comrade to clear a building. They encountered a block, and when Lopez went to push his fellow Marine out of the way, he stepped on an IED.

“I don’t really remember the first month and a half after,” Lopez said. “I’d wake up and then they’d put me back to sleep for another surgery.”

Lopez had his left leg amputated below the knee, as well as a number of skin and bone grafts. He has limited mobility in his right hand, and doctors reconstructed his pelvis. He still has shrapnel in his left heel, and he suffers from complications of TBI and PTSD.

His mother, Jessica, described him as “a different Joshua.” Lopez was hesitant, saying he didn’t want to socialize. But after a Walter Reed Medical Center staff member pestered the group to check out a Friday night dinner, Jessica said she saw an immediate change.

“He is more like himself when he’s here,” Jessica said.

Lopez reiterated his mother’s sentiments “In the hospital, I felt like I had to be sick,” he said. “[These dinners] motivate you to want to get better. It gets you off the edge. It changes your mood. They have a high level of respect for everyone here.”

For him, the dinners allow Lopez to experience “a different side,” as he described it. As a Marine, Lopez was expected to be hardened emotionally and physically. It was necessary, he said, in order to do his job—particularly during deployments. Lopez deployed three times after he enlisted in 2008: twice to Japan on humanitarian deployments in the wake of the 2011 tsunami and once to Afghanistan where he was wounded. But the dinner atmosphere is much more laid back.

Currently, Lopez is receiving outpatient treatments, which often require him to be at doctor appointments most days from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. And because he has not separated from the military, he is still expected to keep his appearance in line with military regulation—that means fi nding time to get his hair cut, or overcoming physical challenges to keep his uniform pristine. And he’s not alone.

For a number of attendees, these practices are common and often exhausting.

“Your whole life is turned upside down,” his mother, Jessica, said. “These dinners get you out of your routine, they are therapeutic for the family as much as the wounded warriors.”

When Lopez doesn’t feel like going, his family often motivates him.

“You can see his spirit lifting when he attends,” Lopez’s wife, Jennifer, said.“The heart everyone here has is indescribable.It’s a blessing to have people to help us.”

GROWING BONDS

Michael Cain hails from Berlin, Wis.,—a town of some 5,000 people. He loves football and ice hockey—specifi cally the Green Bay Packers and the Washington Capitals. He even played roller hockey for a while before joining the Army in 2000. In 2003, Cain, a truck driver with the 299th Engineers, 4th Infantry Division, drove over an anti-tank landmine while on duty in Tikrit, Iraq. He had his left leg amputated below the knee and “a broken body,” as he described his many wounds from the blast.

Cain’s initial dinner was one of the fi rst offered—perhaps the fi fth or sixth since they started in October 2003, as he recalls—and he was still attached to a morphine drip.

“These dinners are good for morale,” Cain said. “They’re about getting out and seeing people. Even when I’m having a really rough day, I can come to a Friday dinner and talk to friends and I feel better.”

What starts as a group of wounded warriors meeting for evening meals quickly becomes planning barbecues or catching a game at other times of the week.

“You grow a good bond,” Cain said.While Cain hasn’t gone to every dinner since the beginning, he still makes an attempt to attend when he can to catch up with old friends and meet new ones.

OFFERING HOPE

The unique camaraderie that comes out of each event is also why it is so important to share the Friday dinner atmosphere with other wounded warriors.

VFW’s National Military Services sponsored the dinner, including some 30 members of the Marine’s Wounded Warrior Regiment Warrior Athletic Reconditioning Program headquartered in Quantico, Va., so they could attend the outing on Nov. 2, 2012.

The regiment, split into two battalions and seven detachments, focuses on a model that emphasizes a mind, body, spirit and family connection to help members heal and return to duty, or separate into civilian life. Members participate in sports and other physical activities as part of their recovery.

Johnathan Rose, a member of the Wounded Warrior Battalion-East, San Antonio Detachment, participates in Bicycling. He hopes to qualify for the national wounded warrior games in May. Three years ago in May 2010, Rose was wounded just outside of Sangin, Afghanistan. He lost the vision in his left eye and most of his hearing after his vehicle—the lead vehicle in a convoy on a recon mission—hit an IED.

To Rose, the most important aspect of the dinner is having the opportunity to meet with other wounded warriors.

“These other guys may not have the same wounds, but they are still wounds,” Rose said.

That basic understanding of physical wounds and being wounded helps create immediate bonds. By the end of the dinner, Marines from the Wounded Warrior Battalion were participating in friendly cajoling between different services. They posed for pictures together. They could relax and have fun.

This particular dinner was a beforeand- after snapshot of the recovery process.Allowing these young men and women to interact is therapeutic, giving the newly recovering hope and motivation by talking with others who have lived through similar experiences.

E-MAIL kgibson@vfw.org

Read the full article at http://digitaledition.qwinc.com/article/Wounded+Warrior+Dinners+Present+Healing+Connections/1254901/137957/article.html.

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