Tampa group honors injured military personnel

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BY JOYCE MCKENZIE
Special Correspondent
Published: March 11, 2015

TAMPA — Jake Kokowic recently paid the Freedom Alliance organization a tremendous compliment.

“This is the best darn restaurant that I’ve been to, and it’s really nice that they are doing this for us,” he said.

The “they” he was referring to is Freedom Alliance, a nonprofit privately funded organization based in Dulles, Virginia, that pays tribute to members of the Armed Forces throughout the country by way of appreciation dinners, special events and financial support.

The organization recently honored a group of nearly two dozen seriously injured or ill servicemen and women patients at the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital in Tampa and their family members, with a dinner at the Texas de Brazil in Tampa.

 Seated in a spacious reserved area of the restaurant, they were treated to a wide and unique assortment of selections from the soup and salad bar, followed by servers who intermittently came to each table with various meats on skewers ready to carve whatever each guest found appealing.

Kokowic, a 24-year-old active-duty Marine, was among the pampered diners.

He was struck on his motorcycle by a drunken driver on Sept. 2, 2014, while on base with the Marine Corps Security Force Battalion in Kings Bay, Georgia.

He sustained a traumatic brain injury, 15 broken bones and remained in a coma for 16 days. He was brought to the veterans’ hospital in Tampa where he is undergoing treatment in the Polytrauma Rehabilitation Center.

Allen Enley, 22, a Navy active duty wheelchair-bound serviceman who also was injured by a drunken driver while riding his motorcycle in August of last year, was likewise a guest at the dinner.

He undergoes therapy three times a day and is hopeful he’ll one day be back on his feet.

“I think this is a very nice place and they did a great job of bringing us here,” he said.

Alicia Emond, 40, a Navy petty officer who served a tour of duty in Afghanistan in 2003 and underwent a double mastectomy in 2014 as a result of breast cancer, was recently told her cancer has returned.

“The atmosphere and the food here is phenomenal,” she said. “I’m blessed to have this opportunity and to have such a good support team.”

Scott Myers, 37, had been on active duty with the Navy for 14 years when he suffered a stroke in December that paralyzed his left side and left him unable to talk for a time. He is grateful for the progress he’s made at the hospital’s polytrauma rehab center.

“Those nurses are magicians,” he said.

Jeffrey Scott, 23, an Army enlistee who experienced a brain injury during an exercise at the Fort Irwin National Training Center in California two years ago, has been a patient at the VA hospital in Tampa for a year. He said it felt good to be away from the facility, albeit for just a couple of hours.

“I love it,” he said. “It’s a real good place to be.”

 Tony Kenworthy, 33, also an Army active duty soldier, has spent six months at Haley’s polytrauma center following a spinal cord injury in Afghanistan in July of 2014. The injury left him partially paralyzed. He came into the restaurant flanked by his daughter Mia, 3, his aunt Julie Kuerschner from Philadelphia and her daughter Katie, 13.

Kuerschner said her nephew is making marvelous progress and was delighted to have the opportunity to enjoy an evening out and a top-notch dinner with his family.

“This is a very nice place to eat,” Kenworthy said.

And Michael Montheril, 22, who also incurred a spinal cord injury last July while serving with the Army in Afghanistan and is being treated at the hospital’s polytrauma rehab center, invited his mother, Marie Montheril from Ft. Lauderdale, to join him.

 “This whole experience has been delicious,” he said.

 His mom wholeheartedly agreed.

“We’re not in heaven, but this is close to it,” she said.

In addition to the dinner, each of the guests received a set of Lisa Hoffman Variations Fine Fragrance Oils.

 Freedom Alliance Program Assistant Tina Wholean said hospital staff selected patients who they determined would most benefit from the outing.

 “This is considered part of their therapy,” she said.

 It was Freedom Alliance’s eighth consecutive year to host an appreciation dinner for seriously injured and ill service members from the Tampa veterans hospital and their families.

Joyce McKenzie can be reached at joycecmckennzie@gmail.com.

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