Steak and ale soothe ailing soldiers

Posted: Mar 15, 2006 12:05 AM

WASHINGTON - Americans have heard much about coffins returning from Iraq without media coverage; they've heard about military funerals unattended by the commander in chief; they've also heard endlessly about a certain military mother who lost a son in Iraq.

What they don't hear much about are the quiet events and private meetings that often take place in the Oval Office between President George W. Bush and military families. Or the Friday-night steak dinners local restaurateurs throw for wounded vets from Walter Reed Army Medical Center and the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.

I stumbled upon one of the dinners last Friday night as I was heading to meet a longtime e-mail buddy, Russ Clark of Columbus, Ohio, a Vietnam Marine vet and minister with Point Man International Ministries of Central Ohio. Clark works with other vets as they try to adjust to civilian life. Some are recently returned from Iraq or Afghanistan; others are still trickling in from Vietnam.

War takes some time getting over, Clark will tell you.

The short story is that Clark and I missed each other, to our mutual regret. Instead, I happened upon a large dining room filled with about 125 people, including many wounded soldiers in wheelchairs or on crutches. I also noticed a couple of suits by the door wearing wires.

I introduced myself and asked who in the room required security. They weren't in the mood to say, apparently, but suggested that I'd probably be able to figure it out. In a room full of camouflage and amputees, it was easy to spot a man in a dark suit casually grasping a Corona neck. I wandered over to the group surrounding him and listened as Isaac Serna, a 21-year-old Humvee gunner, described how he had been wounded.

The man in business attire was Dr. Paul Wolfowitz, former deputy defense secretary and now head of the World Bank. Wolfowitz listened intently, asked a few questions, then joined Serna and others for a group photo. And so the evening went, with the former deputy quietly making the rounds - listening and shaking hands - and lingering for a while after the wounded were headed back to Walter Reed.

In fact, I learned, you can find Wolfowitz here most Friday nights - at least twice a month - meeting with the wounded and hearing their stories. No fanfare or fuss, which is why many outside of Washington don't know about it.

"Here" is Fran O'Brien's Stadium Steakhouse in the basement of the Capital Hilton Hotel a few blocks from the White House, where owners Hal Koster, a Vietnam vet, and Marty O'Brien began hosting free dinners for wounded troops a couple of years ago. Some may recognize the setting from the "Doonesbury" comic strip, which featured O'Brien's after creator Garry Trudeau attended one of the dinners.

To accidental tourists like me, the sight of so many wounded, including many amputees, gathered in an environment of celebration is initially jarring. You feel almost ashamed of your limbs, but are quickly disabused of that vanity by the generous spirits of the soldiers themselves. Serna efficiently rolled up his pants to reveal a badly swollen leg supported by splints, reporting happily that he would keep his leg.

Sgt. Edward Wade, who has been traveling between his home in Chapel Hill, N.C., and Walter Reed for the two years since his "alive day" - what wounded soldiers call the day they didn't die - was less fortunate. He lost his right arm when an IED exploded and suffered enough brain damage that he wasn't expected to live.

His spunky wife, Sarah, does most of the talking and has high praise for Wolfowitz. "Of all the people, Dr. Wolfowitz is the first who has met the faces of the people who were wounded in the war," she said. "... He's more the student now. He learns from us."

Wolfowitz has taken plenty of flak for his contributions to the Iraq war strategy, now considered to be "going badly" by a majority of Americans (57 percent, according to a recent CBS News poll). Even though those figures are mirrored by Americans in the military (58 percent), I did not feel inclined to disagree with Wolfowitz on this night in this room when he said to me, "The last thing these people want is for us to cut and run."

 Whatever one may observe with 20/20 hindsight, any appraisal of Wolfowitz is incomplete without a visit to Fran O'Brien's on Friday nights. There you might also bump into the Wades and hear that on Feb. 14, they were celebrating the second anniversary of Edward's "alive day" when the telephone rang.

It was Dr. Wolfowitz.