By Steve Fidel
Hospitalized veterans now have a "comfort home" where their families can stay, without charge, right on the campus of the George E. Wahlen VA Medical Center.
The 57th guest home built by the Fisher House Foundation was unveiled Tuesday. It has 20 self-contained suites for veterans' families with a large, communal kitchen, laundry facilities, common living space with the look of a luxury home, and a broad patio with a spectacular mountain view. At 16,800 square feet, it is also the largest of all of the Fisher House projects.
The $5.8 million home was built with private sponsorships and donations and then gifted to the Veterans Administration during ceremonies Wednesday. It is the first built by the Fisher House Foundation that is dedicated to the memory of a fallen Marine, Chance Phelps, who was killed in action in Al Anbar, Iraq in 2004. Chance's story was featured in the HBO movie "Taking Chance," starring Kevin Bacon.
Phelps' mother, Gretchen Mack, was an invited guest Wednesday along with Gov. Gary Herbert, veteran and TV personality Montel Williams and Melba Wahlen, widow of Medal of Honor recipient George E. Wahlen — who the adjacent VA hospital is named after.
"She's thrilled with the home. It exceeded her expectations even," VA hospital spokeswoman Jill Atwood said of the fallen Marine's mother. "She said he would be thrilled to see a house like this and see all the veterans' family members have a safe place to go."
Cassandra Herring is the Fisher House's first resident and has been there since the facility's soft launch in January. Her husband, Burnell, had a stroke following surgery to install a heart pump, and the duration of his hospital stay is unknown.
Having a place to live so close to her husband's hospital room "removes a lot of stress," Herring said. Another 30 or so people have joined her as residents of the home while she's been there.
"At night we get together. We eat together. We pray together. You're never by yourself. You're never alone," she said. "They have the same issues. They understand what you're going through."
She has met local families and church groups who help by bringing meals, particularly on Sundays, coordinated through the Fisher House Salt Lake City organization.
"There's a wish list of things we need to keep the house running," Atwood said. "It's all up to the community."
"This wouldn't have happened without the help of many people," the governor said. A recent tour of Afghanistan gave him a chance to observe fast, quality healthcare offered to injured service members. "We need to make sure they have good medical treatment when they get home." Looking after veterans' families is part of that obligation, Herbert said.
Fisher House Foundation chairman and CEO Ken Fisher said the organization's projects have hosted 160,000 families and accommodated 4 million nights of lodging.
Families supporting injured service members are too often forgotten, Fisher said. "The stress can be unfathomable," he said. There are plans for another 28 Fisher House projects, including one in the United Kingdom. "There will always be unmet needs."
Robert Forrester is president and CEO of Newman's Own Foundation, started by actor and World War II veteran Paul Newman. Helping finance Fisher House projects has been one of the foundation's priorities "since Paul first heard about them in 1995," Forrester said.
Forrester said that having a comfortable home setting close to where a loved one is hospitalized helps send the message: "That's just one part of your life. Other things in your life are OK."
"Holidays, birthdays & anniversaries have been celebrated with tears and smiles with people who truly understand what the other person is experiencing."
- Kamryn Jaroszewski