By Dan Shortridge
From the outside, the stone-fronted, perfectly landscaped building could be any conference hall, office space or small corporate headquarters in America.
But stepping inside the front hall reveals a cozy, warm atmosphere with comfortable chairs, nature paintings and photographs and blue-and-white china in a cabinet providing a homey touch.
The building dedicated Wednesday on the campus of Dover Air Force Base is not an office center, but rather a welcoming station for families of America's men and women who have fallen in service to their country.
The Fisher House, part of a nonprofit foundation's effort to support the troops, can host up to nine families at a time, providing a place to stay on base when they receive the remains of their soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines coming back through the base's mortuary command.
For Ruth Stonesifer of Doylestown, Pa., whose Army Ranger son, Kris, was killed in a helicopter accident in Pakistan in 2001, it is both a practical way of helping people who have been through what she has been through, and a symbol of America's commitment to those who serve.
"They will be able to be embraced by a supportive community," she said.
That's the whole idea behind Fisher House, in its 20th year of opening homes around the country where families of injured veterans can stay while their sons and daughters receive medical treatment.
Delaware's house is different, as it is designed to host families of the fallen. It is part of a broader support effort at Dover that includes the Center for the Families of the Fallen and a separate meditation center across the road from the Fisher House lodgings.
Wednesday's dedication ceremony brought together active-duty service members, veterans, local dignitaries and the top Air Force brass to commemorate the event.
It's not a day of celebration, said Ken Fisher, who chairs the foundation his uncle began in 1990, but rather a time for reflection.
"Fisher House, by tradition, has been part of the healing process," he said. "Unfortunately, the need is there."
The house was built in record time -- six and a half months from groundbreaking to opening -- after Fisher House officials learned last year that families coming to Dover had to stay off-base, in hotels and motels.
"We didn't want another day to go by without these families having a place to grieve," Ken Fisher said.
The $8.5 million project was funded by the Fisher House Foundation, with donations raised by Gold Star Mothers and other groups. Donors include President Barack Obama, who gave $250,000 from his Nobel Peace Prize award to the foundation, split between projects at Dover and at Bethesda Naval Hospital.
The 8,426-square-foot house has nine private suites and common areas including a kitchen, living room, library, dining room, family room and laundry.
Former television talk-show host Montel Williams, a Navy and Marine Corps veteran himself, said every morning he picks up the newspaper to see how many service members have fallen in America's conflicts.
"There will be more tonight, and there will be more tomorrow night," he said, choking up and describing how the Fisher House program helps their families. " 'I support the troops' isn't just some token phrase."
Dover's mortuary has served as the entry point for fallen service members and other U.S. citizens for decades. In 1991, media coverage of arrivals was banned, a policy that remained in place until 2009, when families were given the option of allowing the media to cover the dignified transfer of remains. More than 3,400 family members and friends have traveled to Dover since then.
The Fisher House is next to DAFB's Center for the Families of the Fallen, where families can receive support, counseling services and other assistance as they grieve.
Air Force leaders said the Dover house is one way, however small, that the country can help the families of the fallen, who also serve the country.
"Although we cannot heal the heartache that family and friends must endure, our hope is that this house will provide some comfort to those who grieve for the nation's fallen heroes," said Air Force Secretary Michael Donley.
Added Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, Air Force chief of staff: "We are making every effort to pay our eternal debt."
"Holidays, birthdays & anniversaries have been celebrated with tears and smiles with people who truly understand what the other person is experiencing."
- Kamryn Jaroszewski