Dinners Give Troops New Support Network

By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Aug. 28, 2007 - For injured servicemembers, the transition between hospital and hometown can be a rough one. Kathy Pearce is working to make that transition a little smoother in Arizona's Sun Valley with monthly "Hometown Heroes Dinners."

The dinners give still-recovering servicemembers a chance to get together with others in the area who have shared similar experiences.

"What I was finding is that once they get back home ... there is such a loss of that camaraderie once they're not with their unit or they're not in a rehab center," said Kathy Pearce, a Military Severely Injured Center advocate for support in Arizona.

It wasn't Pearce's role as an advocate that opened her eyes to this issue. It was her role as a military mom.

Her son, Army Staff Sgt. Brent Bretz, suffered severe injuries in December 2004 while serving in Iraq. Pearce spent months with him as he recovered. During this time, she observed the bond Bretz formed with his fellow patients over shared experiences. "I thought we needed to do something to bring them all together (again)," she said. "That's when I started looking for somebody that would do dinners."

Patrons of a new restaurant in the area who knew of Pearce's plan suggested she talk to Ron Youngberg, a managing partner in one of three R.T. O'Sullivan's Sports Grill restaurants in the Sun Valley area.

He stepped up to the plate and hosted the inaugural dinner for about 11 servicemembers and their guests Aug. 6.

"(If) you get a chance to give back to somebody, then we want to do that. Ray O'Sullivan (the restaurant owner) ... was all for it," Youngberg said. "He's an ex-Irish cop, an ex-Irish soccer player, and he's had the benefits of living over here for many years now. It was a small token of appreciation he could extend to them, because they've done so much for us.

"It wasn't just the idea of giving the guys a free meal," Youngberg said. "It was just a matter of having them come out to have a spot to mainly network amongst themselves."

Both Youngberg and Pearce saw just that beginning to happen.

"You could kind of see that they were making new friends, new bonds," Pearce said of the veterans who attended the dinner. "It may take a few times to get it where they really feel comfortable, but you could see it happening."

In addition to the veterans, Veterans Affairs case workers and the Arizona director of VA services attended that first dinner. The VA representatives were on hand to introduce themselves and offer their assistance when the servicemembers are ready to enter that system, Pearce said.

R.T. O'Sullivan's Glendale, Ariz., location hosted the first of the monthly dinners, based on similar events in Washington and Texas.

The R.T. O'Sullivan's in Mesa Springs has agreed to host the next dinner Sept. 5, Youngberg said. The reason for the shift in stores is simply to reach as many veterans as possible, since travel can be difficult for the recovering servicemembers.

Youngberg has contacted friends who own restaurants and asked them to come on board, as well. Pearce confirmed that one of those restaurants has agreed to host a future dinner.

The restaurants donate the meals, meaning there's no cost to those attending the dinners, Pearce said. If it ever becomes more than the restaurants feel they can handle financially, she has two nonprofit groups lined up to help defray the cost. One of those is a Washington-based organization.

The other is Salute A Soldier Foundation, the nonprofit group her son and his siblings formed to raise awareness and promote the assistance of injured servicemembers and their families as they return to their communities. The organization already serves as a co-host of the "Hometown Heroes Dinners."

"It's just kind of their way to say, 'Thank you' back to others as they are now trying to return home," she said of Salute A Soldier.

Dinners Give Troops New Support Network [ ]