By Jonathan Gurwitz
When Judith Markelz took a job as program manager for the Soldier and Family Assistance Center at Fort Sam Houston, she thought she was signing up for a temporary position. The hope in 2003 was that the center here -- which coordinates care for soldiers wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan, and helps their families navigate the military's health-care system -- could close its doors within six months.
It's been five years now and Mrs. Markelz is still on the job.
In the interim, more than 4,000 wounded soldiers, Marines, sailors and airmen have received treatment at the nearby Brooke Army Medical Center. Many of them have come through her door looking to find everything from books and movies to pass the time, to a place where members of their families can stay while they recuperate.
For wounded warriors, arriving at the center coincides with the start of a sometimes months-long, painful rehabilitation. Depression and boredom are common.
"They are amazing people, with strength beyond anything I have ever seen," Mrs. Markelz tells me. "They cry at night, but they don't cry during the day."
Mrs. Markelz is a counselor, activity director and surrogate mother to all the soldiers in the center. "This is a new group of young men and women," the former schoolteacher says. "We need to be meeting their needs in any way we can."
The facility, which has been renamed the Warrior and Family Support Center, is a multipurpose community room, refuge and second home for wounded soldiers and their families. Enter it, and you can't help being overwhelmed by the bravery of the young men and women in uniform, and the outpouring of support from religious groups, businesses and individual volunteers who enrich it.
But for years you also couldn't help notice that the facility was too small for the number it cares for -- crammed into a 1,200-square-foot office in a guest house on post. This was suitable, perhaps, for a "temporary" center, but inadequate for something that had become an integral part of the military's health-care system.
Private donors are already doing a lot to help recuperating soldiers in San Antonio. In recent years, two "Fisher Houses" were built near Brooke Army Medical Center by the Fisher House Foundation to give family members of injured soldiers a place to stay. And across the street from Mrs. Markelz's facility is the gleaming new Center for the Intrepid, a state-of-the-art amputee and burn-victim rehabilitation facility built with private funds and donated to the Army.
"I'm not spiritual," Mrs. Markelz says when asked if she ever wondered whether the needs of her own facility would be met, "but there's magic in this room, and I don't know where it comes from. If I say something, if I say we're out of cookies, cookies walk in."
Les Huffman, a commercial developer, walked in one day in late 2006 and was overwhelmed -- by the spirit of the military personnel, by the devotion of the staff and volunteers, and by the obvious need for more space. Mr. Huffman and his brother Steve, sons of a career Air Force officer, decided to lead an effort to build larger quarters for the center.
In short order they created a nonprofit organization -- the Returning Heroes Home -- pulled together a board of directors, made a proffer to the Army, and started raising money. They sought input from the wounded soldiers, staff, doctors and rehabilitation specialists for the design.
The nonprofit raised $3.6 million in cash contributions and another $1.5 million worth of in-kind contributions that included 275 tons of limestone, computers, audio-visual equipment and more. More than 5,000 individuals, businesses and foundations donated in one way or another.
A little more than a year after breaking ground, the new Warrior and Family Support Center was complete. On Dec. 1, Mrs. Markelz began moving into her new 12,000-square foot home.
"The mission of this facility is to have an impact on the lives of these kids -- do something positive that's uplifting, get them out of the environment of depression in those barracks," Steve Huffman says.
A 24-foot Christmas tree stands in the lobby, decked with red, white and blue ornaments. Mrs. Markelz says, "It's not my new home. It belongs to the wounded warriors and their families. . . . It's not about me. They deserve it -- big time."
Critics ask why private efforts are needed, why the military isn't building these centers on its own. Paul Begala, for one, has said "[i]t is an obscenity that a government that can find billions in no-bid contracts for Halliburton . . . cannot find a few million dollars to bind up the wounds of its heroes." Sen. Chris Dodd (D., Conn.) has sounded similar notes.
Steve Huffman offers a partial answer to these critics. He says that the government recognizes the needs of the troops, as evidenced by its huge investment in military medicine, but it has to prioritize its spending and can't always fill in the gaps.
"I like to paraphrase what Arnold Fisher [the driving force behind the Center for the Intrepid] said," Steve Huffman told me. "This is not about philanthropy, this is not a gift. It's an obligation. It's a partial repayment on a debt we owe these guys."
We live in an era of earmarks and ever-expanding bailouts where there is seemingly little that the government is incapable of doing. But you cannot earmark bravery or budget patriotism. And perhaps that is the best justification for what citizens -- and not government alone -- should do to aid those who have volunteered to defend their freedoms.
Through the Returning Heroes Home Foundation the Huffmans are now raising money to create fitness trails on property adjacent to center they've just built. Steve Huffman explains the motivations for all of his efforts this way, "This is the most important thing I've ever done in my life."
"Holidays, birthdays & anniversaries have been celebrated with tears and smiles with people who truly understand what the other person is experiencing."
- Kamryn Jaroszewski