By Meg Jones
After LuAnn Bird's husband Phil, a Vietnam veteran, was paralyzed in a work accident two decades ago, she spent a lot of time traveling from their Oshkosh home to Milwaukee's VA hospital.
Sometimes she stayed with a friend, many times she drove back and forth as she took care of their children.
Two years ago, the couple were living in Montgomery, Ala., when Phil Bird went to Tampa, Fla., to visit the pain clinic at the VA hospital there. Since it was an eight-hour drive for LuAnn Bird, she figured she'd try to find a hotel, but a social worker said there was an opening at the Fisher House.
LuAnn Bird had never heard of Fisher House but quickly learned the houses at veterans hospitals and military bases across the country provide free lodging for families of wounded warriors.
Now the Birds live in Hales Corners and are part of fundraising efforts to build a Fisher House on the grounds of the Zablocki Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Milwaukee. Plans are to build Wisconsin's first Fisher House next year for as many as 12 families of veterans undergoing treatment.
Staying at the Fisher House in Tampa was a comfort for LuAnn Bird.
"It was right on the hospital grounds. I didn't have to drive. It was wheelchair accessible and there were other families going through what we were going through," she said. "It was incredible for us to have that kind of support. It helps to have people who are going through what you're going through around you."
As the ranks of wounded and ailing veterans swell from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, so too does the need for families to care for loved ones undergoing treatment for traumatic brain injuries, post-traumatic stress and limb amputations.
But many families are unable to travel from their homes to VA hospitals to be close to their veterans.
Fisher Houses fill the need. There are 57 such houses at VA hospitals and military installations across the U.S., plus one in Landstuhl, Germany. Some facilities have more than one Fisher House.
The program was started more than 20 years ago by Zachary Fisher, a New York real estate mogul known for his philanthropy.
Houses feature either 12 or 20 suites with private bedrooms and baths, plus laundry facilities, kitchens and common areas that include one large dining table.
The Maryland-based Fisher House Foundation raises money to build houses on the grounds of VA hospitals and then gives the buildings to the government, which operates and maintains them. The foundation works with the secretary of veterans affairs to identify facilities that need Fisher Houses, and Milwaukee is now at the top of the list, said Dave Coker, Fisher House Foundation president.
"If we can provide a place for families to be there and be part of the process, I believe you'll have a better outcome," Coker said. "The healing will be easier because they don't have to worry about where they'll stay or can they afford this."
Milwaukee is slated to get a 12-suite Fisher House at a cost of $4.7 million for construction and furnishings. The foundation usually asks each community to help with raising money for a Fisher House.
In Milwaukee, $500,000 has been raised since March 2011 through corporate and individual donations and events. Spearheading fundraising is Dan Buttery, an Iraq veteran who volunteers his time as president of Fisher House Wisconsin.
Buttery was a company commander in the Wisconsin National Guard 724th Transportation Battalion who heard about Fisher House a few years ago when soldiers from his unit were injured on a deployment to Afghanistan. The soldiers' families stayed at Fisher Houses near military hospitals in Germany, Texas and Washington, D.C.
When asked why he's devoted so much time to building a Fisher House in Wisconsin, Buttery got emotional and said simply "my men."
"These young GIs are using these facilities and they'll continue to use them for many years. There's a need," said Buttery, who injured his back in Iraq and was medically retired in 2007.
While fundraising continues, organizers are considering several sites on the Milwaukee VA campus to build a Fisher House. It's not an easy task because the Milwaukee VA grounds includes the Milwaukee Soldiers Home National Historic Landmark District and Wisconsin's only national cemetery.
At a meeting last week, Buttery answered concerns from representatives of the National Park Service and the National Trust Historic Preservation who questioned whether constructing a Fisher House would harm the historical integrity of the site, the most intact Soldiers Home in the country.
The need for a place for families to stay while veterans recuperate at the Milwaukee VA is great - more than 70,000 veterans are enrolled in the Milwaukee VA's community-based clinics, which include facilities in Appleton, Green Bay, Union Grove and Cleveland, with a combined total of 675,000 annual outpatient visits, said Dave Van Thiel, social work executive at Milwaukee's VA hospital.
Many patients recover faster when they're near loved ones.
"It goes back to our core mission at the VA," said Van Thiel, "to care for him who shall have borne the battle - it's a statement from Abraham Lincoln - and for his widow, and his orphan by serving and honoring the men and women who are America's veterans."
Regina Erickson stayed at Fisher Houses in Bethesda, Md., and Minneapolis after her husband, Staff Sgt. Chad Simon, was critically injured by a bomb in Iraq. Three fellow Marines were killed in the blast in November 2004 and Simon, 32, never regained consciousness before dying in August 2005.
"It's a bittersweet time to be in a Fisher House, well, it was bittersweet in general, but it made a big difference," said Erickson, a dean of students at a Milwaukee charter school who is helping to raise money for Milwaukee's Fisher House.
"I look forward to the house being open and done so I can give in a way that's more my strength, hospitality and encouragement. I look forward to bringing flowers or baking a pie, decorating a Christmas tree, or having students at the school I work at to make cards," said Erickson.
For more information, go to fisherhousewi.org
"Holidays, birthdays & anniversaries have been celebrated with tears and smiles with people who truly understand what the other person is experiencing."
- Kamryn Jaroszewski