TAMPA — Under dim lights, white tablecloths and fancy silverware anchored tables set for a dinner for 100.
Chairs disappeared as the guests arrived, whisked away to make room for wheelchairs.
At Ruth's Chris Steak House in Tampa, a nonprofit organization treated wounded military and their families to dinner Thursday evening. It was a night when the focus shifted from injuries and therapies to simply enjoying a nice meal.
Army Pfc. Joseph Guagliardo chewed a hunk of steak, giving the meal a thumbs-up.
The 19-year-old went into cardiac arrest Nov. 29 at Fort Stewart, Ga. He woke from a coma in December and doesn't remember a lot of what happened.
"We're so appreciative," his 55-year-old father, Tony, said. "It takes us out of the hospital environment."
This is the third year that Freedom Alliance has sponsored the dinner in Tampa for patients from the polytrauma center at the James A. Haley VA Medical Center. Last year, it held 22 dinners across the country, serving about 2,000 injured military, family members and caregivers.
The organization formed in 1990 through Oliver North, the now-retired Marine and political commentator who became a controversial figure after his involvement in the Iran-Contra affair. A nonprofit, Freedom Alliance supports military members and their families. Radio and television personality Sean Hannity hosts concerts to benefit Freedom Alliance's scholarship fund, set aside for children of military personnel killed or disabled on missions or during training.
Freedom Alliance most recently drew criticism in 2010, when a Washington watchdog group accused the organization of engaging in political activity against nonprofit rules and lying about the portion of fundraising that went into the scholarship fund. The watchdog group complained to the Federal Trade Commission and Internal Revenue Service. At the time, neither regulatory agency instigated a formal review of Freedom Alliance.
But the emphasis of Thursday's event fell on supporting local troops.
"The whole point is to say thank you," said Freedom Alliance executive director Calvin Coolidge.
The mood appeared light and relaxed. Families bantered about Gators football and the annual Army-Navy game.
For some, the dinner celebrated milestones.
David Logan McDonald, a 19-year-old Marine recruit from Mississippi, marked his first dining-out experience since he caught encephalitis during basic training at Parris Island, S.C.
His grandmother, 72-year-old Anita Loper, said he ate a little of everything: salmon, mashed potatoes and creamed spinach.
The outing offered relief to her, too.
"The caregivers always need a break, something special," said Lavina Robison, 66, McDonald's aunt.
A nearby table filled with two families of self-proclaimed "broken-in" wounded soldiers whose injuries date to 2009.
Army Sgt. 1st Class Dustin Magner, 34, and Sgt. Austin Burchard, 31, had been in the same unit but didn't know it until they ended up in the hospital together. While deployed to Afghanistan, they were injured in separate incidents.
Since then, they have become neighbors on the same street in Lutz and continue outpatient therapy at the VA.
Magner has attended all three Freedom Alliance dinners and happily attacked a sizzling steak, automatically reaching for the hot plate even after a waiter's warning.
But the dinner was Burchard's first Freedom Alliance event.
"It's my chance to meet and greet old wounded warriors," he said. "And it's a chance to show newly injured people that there is life after spinal cord injury."
Burchard plays wheelchair softball and wheelchair basketball. He even hunts from his wheelchair. "Basically, you name it, I can do it," he said.
Magner prefers skiing, recently taking a trip to Colorado. He skis more recklessly than his wife might like, he confided, but he says he has no fear anymore.
Both men are paralyzed, Burchard from the waist down and Magner from the chest down.
Magner's wife, 1st Lt. Rebecca Magner, 34, recently moved from active duty to the Reserves, allowing her to spend more time at home with her husband and their 8-year-old son, James. The 8-year-old joined his parents at Ruth's Chris, sawing into a tender steak, taking big bites. His mother chuckled, pulling the butter knife from his hand and replacing it with a steak knife.
Good-natured jokes flew back and forth.
"I'll kick your butt," Burchard's 36-year-old wife, Donna, told Dustin Magner.
He shrugged off her threat and told her to aim higher up. "I can't feel it," he said.
Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this story. Stephanie Wang can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2443.