In 2003, two Vietnam veterans began hosting dinners for wounded military members at Walter Reed. Now, they are passing the torch to DAV.
Zach Herrick, an Army veteran, was shot in the face when his platoon was ambushed in Afghanistan in 2011. Herrick’s injuries were extensive—the gunshot severely damaged his lower jaw, teeth and tongue, requiring more than 20 reconstructive surgeries. He spent from 2011 to 2016 recovering at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
“You’re treated as a patient but still part of the military, which can be tiresome and draining on one’s recovery,” said Herrick.
In 2003, Vietnam veterans and DAV life members Hal Koster and Jim Mayer recognized this truth as a growing need among returning troops wounded overseas. Koster—then a co-owner of Fran O’Brien’s Stadium Steakhouse in Washington, D.C.—had pushed much of his wartime experience out of his mind, but many of his regular customers were Vietnam veterans and VA employees.
“When the war injured starting showing up at Walter Reed Hospital, [Jim] convinced me that a night away from the hospital for a patient or a family member could be very therapeutic,” said Koster.
They soon began sponsoring a free weekly steak dinner for the patients and their families. Eventually, Koster started the nonprofit Aleethia Foundation, and what came to be known as the Aleethia Friday Night Dinners began rotating between different venues throughout the D.C. area, all fully funded by generous donors.
“It was a good way to get out of my room and meet other people,” recalled Herrick, who started attending the dinners in 2014.
“The occupational therapy department works with the service members to teach them to become accustomed to their new norm,” said Koster. “The dinners give them a chance to practice some of this training they have received and do it in a safe environment.”
“Friday night dinner was the only thing that I looked forward to doing, even if it was once a week,” said Herrick. “It helped give me that lifeline that I needed. There was no pressure, no obligation, no worries. Just come, eat, drink, have a relaxing time with friends.
“Hal and Jim helped give us that normality back with our families and friends,” Herrick added.
After 16 years of hosting the weekly dinners, Koster and Mayer are officially turning the event over to DAV to manage and operate, as the organization has been a long-time supporter of the Aleethia dinner program.
“These dinners have become an institution for our wounded military members and their families, and DAV is honored to be taking the reins on such a meaningful event that has impacted so many lives,” said National Adjutant Marc Burgess. “Hal and Jim have been the heart of this program, and we look forward to continuing their vision of serving and honoring the nation’s veterans.”
The event will now be called DAV Night Out but will feature a nearly identical lineup of hosts.
“The legacy I would like to see continued is working closely with the medical staff to not just provide a dinner to honor the patients but a dinner that supports the healing process,” said Koster. “This is a great program being taken over by a great organization. I look forward to continuing to be a part of the dinners but as a volunteer for DAV.”