WASHINGTON - Ten years ago this month an important tradition started in D.C.: Free Friday-night steak dinners for war wounded from Afghanistan and Iraq.
They were started by two Vietnam Vets Hal Koster and Jim Mayer, who wanted to give wounded warriors and their families a break from the Walter Reed recovery routine. Mayer says the dinners started small at Koster's former restaurant, Fran O'Brien's Stadium Steakhouse - "10 or 12 people, then it was 20 and then it was 40."
About two months later, Mayer recalls Koster asking him, "'You know, this is going really good but I and my partner (Marty O'Brien) are taking money out of our (own) pockets. How much longer do you think we gotta do it?' And I looked him dead in the eye and said, 'Oh, two more months tops.'
"It's been a long two months."
Eventually others jumped in to sponsor the dinners at various venues in the region, and so far 40,000 free steak dinners have been served to wounded warriors and their families.
Koster and Mayer set up the Aleethia Foundation to coordinate the dinners, as well as other activities to get the men and women out of the hospital and help their transition into the outside world.
For Jim Mayer, this was nothing new - he has been through it himself, triggered by his tripping a land mine in a Vietnam rice patty and losing both legs. Mayer gets up every morning feeling alive, but especially on his "Alive Day."
"Alive Day," Mayer explains, "is kinda like a perverse way of saying the worst day of your life that you went through - being blown up, almost dying, but you didn't. You lived."
Mayer made a promise to himself, and "to the first nurse that took care of me in intensive care, 'If I live through this I am going to have a party every year and I am going to call it 'Alive Day'."
And Jim Mayer has celebrated his "Alive Day" for 44 years.
Ever since then, the Army vet has made it his life's mission to help others wounded in war. And he tells them all about his way to say "Thank God I'm alive, so let's party."
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