War veterans fighting to keep restaurant open

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War veterans fighting to keep restaurant open
by Lisa Hoffman

WASHINGTON – For more than 100 Friday evenings, some of America’s worst war-wounded have made their way to a Washington restaurant to feed their stomachs and souls.

At Fran O’Brien’s Stadium Steak House, hundreds of soldiers and Marines maimed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have dined gratis on thick steaks, tossed back a few cold ones and basked in the normalcy and comradeship offered there.

But come May 1, those much-anticipated outings from local military hospital wards will cease. Hilton Hotel Corp., landlord of the restaurant, is evicting Fran’s from its decade-long location in the basement of the Capital Hilton in downtown D.C.

“For strictly business reasons related solely to the inability to reach a new lease arrangement, the Capital Hilton has elected to terminate the lease,” hotel general manager Brian Kelleher said in an e-mailed statement…

 

     

Fran’s -which is co-owned by Marty O’Brien, a son of the famed Washington Redskin for whom the upscale establishment is named, and Hal Koster, a veteran of three Vietnam tours – sees things differently.

They say Hilton balked at their request to install an elevator that would make it easier for the vets on crutches and in wheelchairs to reach the restaurant, now accessible only by as many as 20 steps. Some allies of Fran’s suspect that Hilton also soured on the arrangement because of the added liability the hotel might face by having so many disabled people on premises.

Hilton spokeswoman Lisa Cole denied that anything other than business considerations played a role. The Capital Hilton is offering to talk with Fran’s partisans about the possibility of using one of the hotel’s other venues for the dinners, she said, adding that the hotel intends to renovate the space now occupied by Fran’s, but has not decided yet what to use it for.

The Hilton’s stance has triggered a barrage of protest from military veterans and others across the country who say the eviction is a callous affront to troops who have paid a huge price in service to their country.

Internet blogs and radio talk shows from San Diego to Memphis to Camp Doha in Kuwait are denouncing Hilton, spurring a flood of calls of complaint to hotel corporate in-boxes and voice mail.

“Even if your decision is defensible on business grounds, not every decision a man of character makes is made on the basis of the bottom line alone,” wrote Ken Pierce, a Houston software and business consultant, in an email to a Hilton executive.

Retired Army Col. Lee Lane – who helped organize the raising of $3,500 to pay for one Friday night dinner at Fran’s from an email circle of military vets in Texas, Idaho, New Mexico, Kansas and Virginia – agreed.

“It seems pretty callous to me for the Hilton chain to take this type position after all the good the dinners have done for these wounded service men and women,” Lane said in an email.

Those who volunteer at the Friday meals say the old-fashioned coziness of Fran’s, where walls are adorned with photos of sports greats and politicos who have dined there, is a big factor in the welcome it gives the troops who trek there from Walter Reed Army Medical Center and the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.

Since the dinners began in 2003, Fran’s has served as a haven for the wounded, who often feel self-conscious about their missing limbs, clumsy prosthetics, disfigured faces and other grievous wounds.

The staff of the restaurant, along with volunteers who show up weekly to help, go out of their way to make the troops feel at home. The co-owners sprang for the tab for months, but now a network of donors picks up most of the dinner bills.

For many of the wounded, the outing at Fran’s is their only break from the monotony of months of slow recuperation and, for most, a morale-boosting step back to the “normal” world.

Ramona Joyce, an Army vet who volunteers at Fran’s, says she doubts Hilton understands what goes into hosting these troops. Perhaps most important, she said, is the atmosphere of camaraderie supplied by co-owner Koster, a man as beefy as his restaurant’s fare who treats the young soldiers as his sons.

For Koster, 59, who did three tours in Vietnam on a helicopter gunship, the purpose of the dinners is to make sure that these kids are treated better than the soldiers who came home from Vietnam were.

Joyce said Koster had vowed to continue the dinners until the last of the wounded went home form Walter Reed and Bethesda. He and O’Brien are scrambling, trying to find a way to keep the dinners going.

Koster’s “promise (to keep the dinners going) is being broken,” Joyce said. “But it’s not being broken by him.”


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