By James Ewinger
CLEVELAND, Ohio -- Construction is probably a few years off, but a local group pledged Friday that the region will have a Fisher House -- lodging for the families of wounded warriors being treated at the Louis Stokes Cleveland VA Medical Center.
The goal is a 20-suite home with a communal sitting and dining areas. A tentative site has already been identified at East 105th Street and Wade Park Avenue, adjacent to the VA hospital in University Circle.
"A Fisher House in Cleveland has no opposition," said Tom Sweeney, a Vietnam veteran and former TV newsman here who chairs the local task force.
The objective is to raise $3 million, he said.
"When you raise half the funds that is our benchmark, we will provide the rest, put a shovel in the ground and begin building said, said Cindy Campbell, a retired Navy officer with the Fisher House Foundation.
"We know we can't do it this year, but maybe next year," Sweeney told a group of supporters who met Friday afternoon at the Stokes VA center.
Campbell told them the fast they raise the money the higher a priority Cleveland becomes for the foundation.
There are 47 of these houses near military or VA care facilities in the U.S. and abroad, including one in Cincinnati and two at Wright Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton.
All were built with local money and matching funds from the Fisher Foundation, a Maryland based private non-profit founded 20 years ago by philanthropist Zachary Fisher.
Susan Fuehrer, the center's acting medical director, said it provides 42 percent of the VA health care in Ohio.
Campbell said that permanently injured veterans must go to a VA center once a year to validate their disability payments. If they have to travel for that or for out-patient treatment, the VA is not in a position to provide lodging for them and their families.
Sue Tewksbury of Mentor spoke with special authority Friday when she said "the military knows wounded soldiers heal better and faster when family members are there."
She said her son, Justin Kalenit, who was with 11 other airborne soldiers in Afghanistan in 2007 when they were ambushed, half dying and the other half suffering serious wounds.
When her son was strong enough to be airlifted to a military hospital in Germany, the Army flew her there and she stayed in a Fisher House across the street.
There were others at the house "for the same reason I was," she said.
When her son was moved to a Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. , there was no room at the Fisher House and she stayed a local hotel. "But there were no other people (at the hotel) like me."
David Pristash of Brecksville was an officer with the Army's Special Forces in Vietnam. He said he suffered burns over more than 60 percent of his body when he was in a mortar position near the Cambodian border and enemy fire set off the mortar rounds nearby. His heavy weapons sergeant suffered similar burns.
"There were no Fisher Houses then," he said.
Pristash said when he and his sergeant were being treated at Brooke Army Medical Center in Texas, their wives were house in an old wooden barracks and had to fend for themselves. The sergeant's wife had to leave to tend their family "and he died two days later."
"There's no doubt in my mind that if my wife would have left, I wouldn't have made it out," Pristash said.
Sweeney said the task force is forming a board of directors, and is pressing ahead with fund raising. "This is good for the soul of Northeast Ohio," he said.
For more information call Sean Nelson or Ashley Trimble at the Stokes VA center, 440-526-3030, ext. 6720, or go to fisherhouse.org.
"Holidays, birthdays & anniversaries have been celebrated with tears and smiles with people who truly understand what the other person is experiencing."
- Kamryn Jaroszewski