By Darci Marchese
BETHESDA, Md. - Their loved ones often face unimaginable injuries when they return home from war. But thanks to the Fisher House Foundation, family members of injured soldiers have a home away from home to deal with life-altering wounds.
There are now more than 50 Fisher Houses at major military and Veterans Affairs medical centers, offering families a place to stay while their returning soldiers are hospitalized. The newest houses are located at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., where three 16,000-square-foot homes can house 20 families each.
Fisher House is a 20-year-old organization started by Zachary Fisher after the first Gulf War. Since 1990, more than 130,000 families have stayed at Fisher Houses, including the wounded themselves.
Tammy Duckworth is one of those wounded. She lost both of her legs in Iraq when a rocket-propelled grenade exploded in her lap, bringing her Black Hawk helicopter down on Nov. 12, 2004.
Duckworth became the fifth female to lose a limb in the Iraq or Afghanistan wars. She was the first double-amputee.
She stayed at the Fisher House at Walter Reed Army Medical Center for more than a year.
"The Fisher House is a godsend, I can't think of any other way to describe it," she says.
Duckworth says the Fisher House is more than four walls.
"It's really about people who are going through an unimaginable situation together," she says.
Duckworth says families help take care of one another at the Fisher House. She tells stories of people finishing laundry for the mom or dad who has to race back to the intensive care unit to visit a wounded son or daughter.
Duckworth now helps other veterans as an assistant secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington, D.C.
Becky Ziegel of Illinois can't say enough about Fisher House as well.
"Well thank God for Fisher House," she says.
Ziegel lived at a facility for more than a year, while her son Ty recovered from catastrophic injuries in the Iraq war.
In December of 2004, three days before Christmas, Ty was on patrol in Anbar Province when an Iraqi insurgent detonated a carload of explosives beside the convoy's troop truck.
Ty suffered injuries to his upper body and head. He took shrapnel to his frontal lobe, and part of his skull ended up in his abdomen.
Becky Ziegel says her son's face looked like charcoal. His nose and ears were burned off. He lost his left hand and several fingers on his other hand.
As part of his recovery, Ty endured more than 50 surgeries and procedures. A muscle from his back was attached to his skull, and a partial skull was built for him.
"It was like a science-fiction movie for a while," Becky Ziegel says.
But she says they were blessed by being able to stay at the Fisher House in San Antonio.
"Oh, you can't believe it," she says of the camaraderie.
Becky Ziegel says she still keeps in touch with the families she bonded with at Fisher House.
She also says Fisher House is one of the main reasons why her son has fully recovered and can live on his own today. She says it afforded her the opportunity to stay with him and motivate him during his grueling physical therapy -- for more than a year and a half -- at no expense.
Fisher House is a nonprofit organization. It depends completely on donations.
Ken Fisher, the chairman of the Fisher House Foundation, says 97 cents of every dollar goes to building a home.
The houses are "America's gift back to these families of these servicemen and women and veterans who have given so much to this nation," he says.
"Holidays, birthdays & anniversaries have been celebrated with tears and smiles with people who truly understand what the other person is experiencing."
- Kamryn Jaroszewski