The Aleethia Foundation marked its 10th anniversary Oct. 5 with a reunion dinner in Bethesda, Md., that honored nearly 400 servicemembers, their families and foundation supporters. The American Legion's Operation Comfort Warriors program was one of several sponsors for the dinner.
The Aleethia Foundation’s mission is to "support newly injured service members with short-term therapeutic recreation, small financial grants, family emergency aid, assistive technology items, home improvements to assist with an injured service member’s mobility and other unmet needs." Most visibly, the foundation hosts Friday night steak dinners for wounded warriors and their families at various venues around Washington, D.C.
The Aleethia Foundation was co-founded by Hal Koster, a former Vietnam War helicopter gunner and crew chief who is now a prominent Washington restaurateur. Koster says the group was the brainchild of fellow Vietnam vet Jim Mayer. Mayer lost both legs in 1969 when he tripped over a land mine; he was only two months into his "in country" tour of duty.
Since then, Mayer has gained media fame as an advocate for and friend of wounded servicemembers from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He became popularly known as the "Milkshake Man" by virtue of the tasty introductory treats he presented to recent amputees at Walter Reed.
"In October 2003, Jim came to me and said that the people he was visiting at Walter Reed (were) having more than just simple amputations…and it’s taking them a long time to heal," Koster said. "He thought they would heal better if they could get a night out away from the hospital. So, he asked if we would do a few dinners with the guys from Walter Reed at (my restaurant), Fran O’Brien’s. Here we are, 10 years later."
Koster estimates that nearly 40,000 free steak dinners have been served to at least 1,900 wounded warriors and family members since the Aleethia Foundation Friday night dinners were instituted in 2003.
Several dignitaries were in attendance Saturday evening, including Former Deputy Defense Secretary and World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz and Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. James Winnefeld. Also present at the dinner was U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth, former Under Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs and the most prominent wounded warrior in Congress.
Duckworth spent many days at Walter Reed after losing both legs nine years ago during the Iraq War when the Army Black Hawk helicopter she was co-piloting was shot down by insurgents. Duckworth said the reunion was a very special occasion emotionally, as well as a welcome respite from the sometimes harsh world of politics and public life.
"This is one of those safe places," she said, "full of amazing, caring people who took care of me right at the very beginning (and) took care of my family when they were trying to take care of me. These are just old friends and fellow ‘classmates;’ people that I was at Walter Reed with. It’s just really good to see everyone."
The American Legion has been supporting Aleethia Foundation activities from the outset, thanks in large part to John Sommer, former Legion D.C. headquarters executive director. "We became involved in the Friday night dinners because we were doing anything we could to help the young warriors who were coming back to Walter Reed and Bethesda with any problems they might have," Sommer said. Sommer was appointed to Aleethia’s board of advisors after he retired from the Legion in 2009.