By John J. Kruzel
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, July 15, 2007 - A busload of wounded servicemembers brought their appetites to the Italian Embassy here July 13 as the ambassador and his staff transformed the building into Washington's most authentic Italian restaurant.
For nearly 200 Friday evenings since October 2003, about 75 wounded troops recovering at Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington and National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., and their families have been treated to a free meal. Fran O'Brien's steakhouse initially was the main venue until the restaurant lost its lease May 2006. The weekly tradition flirted with extinction, but others have stepped up to the plate to ensure it continues.
Among them is Giovanni Castellaneta, Italy's ambassador to the United States, and wife Lila, who caught wind last May that the dinners were approaching an abrupt end. To keep the tradition alive another week, they suggested an alternate venue: the Italian Embassy.
The event was such a big success that for the second year in a row, the embassy opened its gates July 13 and welcomed 34 hungry war veterans and 38 family members.
"I heard about this association, and I think this association is doing a wonderful job," Castellaneta said. "We have respect for these young people and it is our duty to give some personal contribution."
While hosting last year's dinner, the ambassador said he witnessed support that families gave their injured loved ones, and experienced firsthand servicemembers' enduring sense of duty. "First, I saw a great solidarity among the families. They are not alone," he said. "Second, these young men and women have a great sense of duty. They know that they serve for us, and they were unfortunate in being wounded, but they are very proud to have served not only their country, but the entire world."
As the muggy day settled into evening, servicemembers were greeted at the embassy doors by their Italian military counterparts. From there, they were ushered to tables and chairs arranged under the glass rooftop that revealed a watercolor sunset. Some troops arrived on crutches, moving in staccato steps, and others rolled across the marble floor in wheelchairs.
Italian Army Lt. Col. Enrico Rinaldi, assistant attache to the Italian Embassy, was among the soldiers who greeted the troops. Rinaldi, who wears two stars on his shoulder boards, said that despite slight differences in how the Italian and U.S. militaries operate, their similarities are more striking.
Both countries' militaries have sacrificed for their respective nations, he said, noting that he welcomed the chance to show support for the wounded U.S. troops.
"We think that all these people did a great job for their country. We are happy to stay here with them to make them comfortable tonight," Rinaldi said. "I think it's very important for them to receive this kind of hospitality; it's our Italian culture to make all the people comfortable, above all, these kind of people that made a big sacrifice for their country."
Guests dined on world-class Italian cuisine -- lasagna, prosciutto and melon and salami skewers among the offerings-all prepared by the ambassador's personal chef and served buffet-style.
Tenor Sgt. 1st Class Antonio Guiliano, a member of the Army Band, presented a vocal performance in pitch-perfect acoustics. As he sang, musical notes composed by Puccini bounced off embassy walls adorned with Renaissance-era paintings and Etruscan artifacts.
U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Andrew Lourake, who has accompanied recovering servicemembers to the dinners since December 2003, called them an important step in wounded troops' recovery. Lourake, who underwent an above-the-knee amputation in June 2002 and now wears a computerized artificial leg, is the first and only amputee to return to flight status. As an "amputee peer visitor," he is a role model for young men and women whose spirits have been shattered after losing a limb.
"It's fear of the unknown," he said. "They've been thrust into a world they didn't know existed."
Lourake said he often uses the Friday dinners as a "first outing," easing recent amputees back into public life.
"We do that for two reasons. One is to shelter them a little bit, so they're not amongst the public with everybody staring," he said. "The other (reason) is to have them around other people who are like them. For morale purposes and for families, being able to bond, it's just a huge benefit for them."
Shoshana Bryen is among those who has helped ensure that benefit continues. Special projects director at Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, she recognized the importance of continuing the weekly dinners when they were about to get the ax. "The soldiers were feeling like what had become a haven for them had been taken away," she said of Fran O'Brien's closing. "And the doctors will tell you that this is a huge boost for them."
About the time the Friday night dinners' end seemed imminent, Bryen received a donation of "a couple thousand dollars"with one simple request : that the money be spent on servicemembers. She immediately handed the money to a friend who used it to revitalize the Friday night dinners.
Since then, other sponsors have stepped in and hosted the dinners. The Capitol Hill Club, Army Navy Club and the Japanese and Taiwanese embassies have hosted Friday night dinners. Because Friday is the Jewish day of rest, the Israeli Embassy hosted a Friday dinner on Sunday.
Marine Reserve Maj. Jamie Browning and his family agree that the dinners have had a major impact on his recovery.
Browning's blood vessel hemorrhaged in his brain without warning while he was deployed to Fallujah, Iraq. With half of his skull now removed, he wears a helmet to cover the inward-sloping side of his head that bears a large scar from repeated surgeries.
The July 13 evening at the Italian Embassy was the second time Browning attended the complimentary dinner, and he said he plans to participate in future events.
The 35-year-old Browning said he's overwhelmed by the network of support that exists for U.S. servicemembers. "You read stories about guys coming back from Vietnam getting spit on, and now it's just the complete opposite of that," he said. "If I had a dollar for every time somebody's come up and shaken my hand and said 'Thank You,' I could be a millionaire.
"It just amazes me how many people are out there doing things for us," he said. "I'm sure it takes a hell of a lot of work and time and money to put these dinners on every Friday night. People are giving up their personal lives to help us. It makes us feel a lot better about ourselves."
Jamie's father, Jim Browning, credits the dinners for helping to bring his son out of the shell he entered after his injury. "He was flat, he was depressed," Jamie's father said. "But he has come out of his depression, he has bucked up. The dinners have been a life-saver for us because they're very important to him."