By Tony Perry
When Nicci McClearn of Chicago learned in July that her Marine son had been severely wounded in Afghanistan, she knew where she was headed: Fisher House, adjacent to Naval Medical Center San Diego.
She had stayed there while providing emotional support to the family of one of her son's war-wounded buddies as doctors worked to save his leg. Now it was her turn to keep a vigil while a loved one received care.
"It's a place where you can talk with people who are going through the same thing you are," McClearn said of the eight-bedroom structure with a red-tile roof. "It's easier to be strong that way, when you know you're not alone."
In the last two months, her son, Cpl. A.J. DeBuono, 22, has undergone 13 surgeries to the left side of his body, with more planned to repair the damage done by a rocket-propelled grenade that hit his Humvee. He is walking now and looking forward to more operations and therapy that may improve his hearing and the dexterity in his hands.
On Friday, he was in the audience as his mother was a guest speaker at the grand opening of a second Fisher House on the medical center's grounds. The new house, like others throughout the nation, is designed to provide free lodging for families of military personnel receiving medical care.
The $4-million project is a gift to the Navy from the Fisher House Foundation, named for the late New York real estate tycoon and philanthropist Zachary Fisher, and the foundation's partners, the T. Boone Pickens Foundation and the TriWest Healthcare Alliance.
The first Fisher House here "gave me a place of normalcy when my life was completely upside down," McClearn said, her voice quavering. "It was a place to cry, to share, to be the mother I am."
The house that opened Friday is the 41st Fisher House built adjacent to military or Veterans Affairs hospitals and medical facilities. In two weeks, a Fisher House will open in Dallas, and a couple of months later, another will open next to the VA Medical Center in West Los Angeles.
"Our future is with the VA," said James Weiskopf, a spokesman for the Fisher House Foundation. "The signature wound of these wars is the traumatic brain injury. That means there is a need for long-term care and long-term places for families."
The first Fisher House here opened in 1992 and has served more than 4,000 families, with the average stay about 14 days. The 8,000-square-foot Fisher House II has 12 bedrooms. Both houses have large kitchens, meeting rooms and furnishings in soothing earth tones.
The Naval Medical Center has become a center for the most severely wounded personnel from Iraq and Afghanistan. With an influx of patients, officials soon realized that the center had outgrown Fisher House 1.
During her weeks in Fisher House 1, McClearn was joined by relatives and by family members of other Marines in her son's unit, the Twentynine Palms, Calif.-based 2nd Battalion, 7th Regiment.
Kim Schultz, whose son Cpl. Sean Cain is in Afghanistan, attended the grand opening with McClearn. The 2/7 has suffered more than 14 killed and several dozen wounded; family members have been busy trying to offer support.
"We're the 2/7, Golf Company, weapons platoon moms," McClearn said.
"Holidays, birthdays & anniversaries have been celebrated with tears and smiles with people who truly understand what the other person is experiencing."
- Kamryn Jaroszewski