American Legion Honors TV Show, Foundation Founder

By Carmen L. Gleason
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, March 7, 2007 - Military veterans of the American Legion today recognized a television show and the founder of an organization that supports wounded troops for their special efforts to honor the men and women of the armed forces.

Representing its 2.7 million members, the largest veterans service organization honored ABC's Emmy award-winning reality show "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" and Aleethia Foundation founder Hal Koster during the closing of its 47th Washington Conference here.

"Every positive action we take shows America that we do care about our veterans," American Legion National Chaplain Stan Gruneich said. "It is our honor to highlight those that do so."

The ABC reality show has aired four episodes focusing on the families of current and former troops who have made an impact on their communities.

"'Extreme Makeover: Home Edition' brings to the forefront the needs and challenges for our military heroes transitioning to hometown life," American Legion National Commander Paul Morin said. "By providing them with new homes, (they) have given them tribute and hope for the future while enhancing the awareness of a thankful nation for their sacrifices and service."

Conrad Ricketts, Extreme Makeover's co-executive producer, said the show's popularity is based on the fact that it's similar to a 1900s barn-raising event, when families and communities would come together to help each other out.

"I am amazed all the time," he said. "There are 3,000 to 4,000 volunteers who don't know each other or the families involved, but they come together to make a difference in the lives of others."

Ricketts said he hopes the show inspires others to go out into their own communities to organize friends and neighbors to do the same thing for others.

"All 'our' families are important to us, but when we come across veterans, it talks straight to the purpose of what we're going," Ricketts said.

A video tribute shown during the closing luncheon highlighted the troops honored by the television show. Many in the audience were brought to tears as they saw the touching stories surrounding the men and women featured.

Army Pfc. Lori Piestewa was killed in Iraq in 2003, leaving behind two young children. She was the first American woman to die in Operation Iraqi Freedom and the first Native American woman to die in a foreign war.

The Extreme Makeover crew arrived at her parent's mobile home to build a house for them to retire in while they raise their grandchildren. While in the family's hometown of Tuba City, Ariz., the team also built a memorial center for Native Americans who have served in the U.S. armed forces.

In February, volunteers from the U.S. Marine Corps turned out to help in the building of former Marine Sgt. Jason Thomas' home in Long Island, N.Y. Thomas had run to the assistance of victims in the World Trade Center during the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

The Tate Family, of Davis Island, Fla., is the most recent to be featured by the television series. The family was unable to rebuild their home after a plane crashed into it destroying it. Their son, Ryan, who served on the front lines in Iraq, said that the show was the first time he's ever been thanked publicly for what he has done for his country.

"This is the first time I've seen him smile in years," his mom, Cynthia, said. "It means a lot to see his face light up again."

Show designer Tanya McQueen said participating in the building of homes for veterans and their families takes on a special meaning for her. Her father recently retired from the Army after serving for 42 years. Her brother is also in the Army and on his second tour in Iraq.

"It has been an honor both personally and professionally to be part of this show," McQueen said. "These young men and women are doing so much for our country. It's important for us to give back."

Serving in the military is often a thankless job full of sacrifices, she said.

"They don't do it for the money or prestige," McQueen said. "They do it for the freedoms we take for granted every day."

A Washington resident also is honoring those who have made significant sacrifices for their country while serving in uniform.

For the past several years, Hal Koster, founder of the Aleethia Foundation, which provides support to wounded troops, has continuously thanked wounded warriors for their sacrifices by providing free steak dinners and offering the camaraderie from other veterans.

The Vietnam veteran organizes and runs the D.C.-famed Friday Night Dinners for troops recuperating at Washington's Walter Reed Army Medical Center and Maryland's National Naval Medical Center, in Bethesda.

In addition to the dinners, Koster's foundation has branched out to supply troops with short-term recreation activities like sightseeing drives and trips to the movies. He also tries to help those who are experiencing hardships with small financial grants.

With a surprise recognition, the American Legion honored Koster for his efforts to provide friendship, support and hospitality through his foundation.

"The food and fellowship no doubt play a significant role in their recovery and rehabilitation," Morin said. "The Friday night events provide a venue for the young troops to share their experiences with veterans of previous wars."

Morin said he was in awe of what one man could do for wounded troops and their families.

Koster was quick to deflect the recognition, and he emphasized that these dinners could occur only through the efforts of a large group of people.

He said that when he learned some troops were experiencing long, difficult recovery processes, he wanted to get them out of a hospital environment and give them a break.

"Even if the troops are physically unable to attend, their families can come out to join us," he said. "Families can do a better job of care giving if they are given an opportunity to get out and relax a little."

Steve Clark is one of the wounded warriors who has benefited from the outings since the being of the program. His first time out of the hospital was to one of the Friday night events; he has attended more than 100 since.

"The first time was like a taste of home," he said.

"The dinners were a great place to network and meet like-minded people," Clark said. "There were veterans there who gave me more advice than I could shake a stick at. They were and are my family."

"These troops are great," Koster said. "They are very brave, optimistic people looking towards a life going forward. It's the least I can do to help."

[Web Version:]