By Secretary of Air Force Public Affairs
Secretary of the Air Force Michael B. Donley, Gen. Norton Schwartz, Air Force Chief of Staff, and Ken Fisher, Fisher House Foundation chairman, participated in a special groundbreaking ceremony May 1 for a Fisher House on Dover Air Force Base, Del.
Although this is the 53rd Fisher House to be built, the event was special because it marks the first time ground has not been broken next to a military hospital or Veterans Administration medical center. Instead, this Fisher House will be adjacent to the Center for Families of the Fallen, supporting the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations Center at Dover.
When it opens this fall, the 8,462-square foot home and 1,714-square foot meditation pavilion and garden will provide free on-base lodging to families who travel to Dover to witness the dignified transfer of their loved one.
Supporting these families, the Air Force Chief of Staff stressed, is our most solemn obligation.
"With our collective efforts, and with this new Fisher House, we hope to provide some measure of comfort and peace of mind -- however incomplete -- to some of our Nation's most selfless, most giving patriots ... the families of our fallen servicemembers." General Schwartz said.
"Family members serve, too," the general said, noting that their efforts enable the military to do the nation's work and so "we must pay tribute, and provide loving care, service and support -- in every way that we can -- to our families."
Demand for family support has increased at AFMAO since the April 2009 change to Department of Defense policy regarding dignified transfers. The Secretary of Defense instituted measures to enable families of U.S. servicemembers who die in overseas contingency operations to be present for the return of their loved one. Of the nearly 500 fallen service members supported by Dover since the policy change, relatives have attended almost 75 percent of the time.
Currently, families are placed in local hotels and brought on base for the transfer. Sometimes families are accommodated as far away as Philadelphia because of the lack of local hotel vacancies.
The on-base facility will ease logistics and finances for traveling family members, something the Fisher House has been doing for military members for many years, Secretary Donley said, noting the foundation's role in providing care for service members and their families "battling illness or injury."
"Since 1991," the Secretary said, "your efforts have improved the quality of life for our nation's most precious resource ... during their most trying times."
The Dover Fisher House with continue to do the same for another group, Secretary Donley said.
"Today we break ground on a unique facility which will support the families of Soldiers, Marines, Airmen and Sailors who gave -- in the words of Abraham Lincoln -- 'the last full measure of devotion,'" the Secretary said.
For Ken Fisher, the decision for his foundation to take on this unique project was an easy one to make.
This house "will serve those who have given the ultimate sacrifice ... heroes," he said.
"The word hero means those who make sacrifices for this nation -- those who give back to this nation," Mr. Fisher said. "The men and women who wear this nation's uniforms are the real heroes of this nation. The men and women who have worn the uniform are the real heroes."
Recognizing the organization of mothers who have lost a son or daughter in the service of our country, he said, "The Gold Star mothers are heroes."
The importance of honoring such service is recognized by many Americans who have graciously supported the Fisher Foundation, Mr. Fisher said, including one notable American, President Barack Obama. The commander-in-chief donated $250,000 of his Nobel Peace Prize monetary award to the Fisher House Foundation.
"Much of that will be used in the construction of this house," Mr. Fisher said, a house that would "honor the word hero and honor the sacrifices that have been made for us -- and on behalf of us -- and in defense of this nation."
An emotional Mr. Fisher thanked everyone for participating in what he called "one of his most unbelievable days" as chairman of the foundation. And on the weekend before Mother's Day he concluded the speaking portion of the ceremony with a special message for the mothers represented their today by the Gold Star Mothers.
"May God bless you [Gold Star Moms]. May God Bless all mothers across this nation whose sons and daughters have made the ultimate sacrifice. And may God Bless the United States of America," Mr. Fisher said.
Ruth Stonesifer, president of the Gold Star Mothers, joined Mr. Fisher, Secretary Donley, General Schwartz, project leaders and Dover base leadership in turning over the soil to begin the construction effort.
Elected officials attending the event included U.S. Sen. Tom Carper, and U.S. Rep. Mike Castle, and Dover Mayor Carleton E. Carey.
Other military leaders in attendance included Lt. Gen. Richard Y. Newton III, deputy chief of staff for manpower and personnel, Headquarters Air Force; Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Richard Zilmer, deputy commandant for manpower and Reserve affairs; Army Maj. Gen. Francis Vavala, Delaware National Guard adjutant general; Brig. Gen. (Dr.) Byron C. Hepburn, deputy surgeon general; and Chaplain (Brig. Gen.) David H. Cyr, deputy chief of chaplains. (Capt. Amber Millerchip, AFMAO Public Affairs, and Master Sgt. Russell P. Petcoff, SAF/PA, contributed to this article.)
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