By Alan Greenblatt
Fisher House helped Tammy Duckworth heal. As an Army Reserve helicopter pilot in Iraq, she was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade that cost her both her legs and severely injured her right arm. Eventually, she ended up at Fisher House at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
The Fisher House Foundation has built 45 facilities on campuses at military medical centers around the country, providing housing to veterans, wounded soldiers and their families free of charge. When he was a senator from Illinois, Barack Obama regularly visited Fisher House at Walter Reed.
First lady Michelle Obama, through her work with military families, is also "very aware" of Fisher House, says Duckworth, now an assistant secretary of Veterans Affairs. Last month, when President Obama announced that he would give his $1.4 million Nobel Peace Prize money to 10 charities, Fisher House was the single largest recipient.
Fisher House saves families money during long hospital stays. More importantly, it offers them a ready-made support group. People who have already been in residence at Fisher House for months help newcomers navigate the military and hospital bureaucracies — and offer them someone to talk to who understands what they're going through.
"No one's child is the one child whose dad is different," Duckworth says.
"It is an invaluable program, especially for service members going through a lengthy rehabilitation process," says Ryan Gallucci, a spokesman for the veterans group AMVETS.
Helping Find Their Way
At first, you don't see the families at Fisher House; you see traces of them. Especially when they are new to the house and have a warrior lying in a hospital bed nearby, they barely take time away to sleep. They dart in to change a shirt and maybe start some laundry, but they never seem to stay at the house long enough to finish anything.
The families who have been in residence for months finish up their chores when they can. The informal rule among old hands is that you always set aside an extra plate for a newcomer.
Eventually, though, treatment may become less intensive. Family members may even be joined in the house by the wounded sailor of soldier — first on four-hour day passes and later as outpatients. Then it's that family's turn to help guide the new arrivals.
Dale Beatty counts himself lucky that his family had a place to stay from the time he got hurt. He was a 26-year-old North Carolina National Guard staff sergeant serving in Iraq when his Humvee was hit by two anti-tank mines, costing him both legs below the knee.
His family – and eventually Beatty himself – stayed 15 months at Fisher House at Walter Reed.
"I think the Fisher House is the best asset for a family that's going through something like traumatic injuries from war," he says. "You get to reintegrate with your family, which is pretty hard if you're hurt."
Some Measure of Comfort
The first Fisher House was built 19 years ago at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. Obama's $250,000 donation will help underwrite the cost of three new 20-room facilities for which ground is currently being cleared.
The two existing facilities at Bethesda are always full. They were built by Zachary Fisher, a construction magnate who had been a generous donor to military causes.
"He met the chief of naval operations who said, 'Listen, instead of giving out money randomly, we need a home for sailors and their families,'" says Cindy Campbell, community liaison for Fisher House.
The Fisher House Foundation continues to receive support from the Fisher family, along with corporate and individual donors. The foundation currently is building facilities in a half-dozen states — its busiest construction period yet. Once the homes are built, the foundation donates the structure to the military but continues to offer support. It might pay for a roof or an amenity such as the new outdoor grill at Bethesda.
The foundation also hands out gift cards to families in residence — and often helps them get there. Fisher House runs a program through which people can donate unused airline miles. The military will fly spouses or parents to the bedsides of those wounded, but other family members are on their own. The foundation has given away nearly 19,000 tickets.
"We want [wounded veterans] to be surrounded by people and to feel some measure of comfort at a time when it's very difficult to feel any comfort," Campbell says.
Adapting To Anything
For the wounded, Fisher House provides "training wheels" for resuming normal life, Duckworth says. "I learned to cook again and do laundry from a wheelchair at the Fisher House," she says.
She also started to argue with her husband over little things, like making dinner and taking out the garbage. That's when Duckworth began to believe what she'd been told by older wounded vets: that life would become normal.
The kids help, she says. Duckworth notes that the VA until recently didn't have to worry about providing support for young families. Veterans of wars such as Korea and Vietnam still need treatment, but few of them have small children.
That's not the case for those wounded in Afghanistan and Iraq. Beatty's children were 2 and 6 months old when he was hit. "The kids create a good healing environment," Beatty says.
Children can adapt to anything. A kid still wants her daddy to play, even when he's missing his legs. Duckworth recalls one specific instance of this happening.
"The dad will go outside and learn he can play with his 5-year-old again," she says. "That's not something you can learn in a hospital ward."
"Holidays, birthdays & anniversaries have been celebrated with tears and smiles with people who truly understand what the other person is experiencing."
- Kamryn Jaroszewski