Families of Injured Vets Get Haven of Their Own

By: Monivette Cordeiro
May 16, 2014
The Gainesville Sun

When the mortar round hit Peter Herrick and the 42 other men in the motor pool, Herrick said it felt like when someone hits your funny bone, except all over his body.

The Navy veteran from Fort White was out cold for six days and presumed dead at least once after the blast in May 2004. He woke up six days later in the Bethesda Naval Hospital, about 6,000 miles from where he was stationed in Iraq, he said.

His wife, Diana Herrick, told him his left leg had been amputated and that pieces of shrapnel had lodged in his lungs and neck, damaging his spinal cord and leaving him paralyzed from the neck down.

And out of his 42 comrades, 33 had been wounded and five killed.

As Herrick struggled through a painful recovery, Diana said she lived in Fisher Houses, homes near major military and Veterans Affairs medical centers that provide free lodging to the families of veterans and wounded military members who are being treated.

The Fisher House not only saved the couple thousands of dollars in transportation and housing costs but also provided a support system for Diana from families who knew exactly what she was going through, she said.

Without Diana close by, Peter said he wouldn't have made it.

"I couldn't have gone through it without her strength present every day," he said.

Now Gainesville will have its very own Fisher House at the Malcom Randall Veterans Affairs Medical Center to house families while their loved ones undergo treatment. The Herricks and about 200 other people attended the dedication ceremony Friday morning for the Gainesville Fisher House at the VA complex on Archer Road.

The Gainesville Fisher House is the 63rd Fisher House in the U.S. and will be open for use starting in June. Gainesville's Fisher House has 20 suites and covers 16,800 square feet. It includes a large kitchen, communal living room, dining room, family room, laundry room and a patio.

Each suite comes equipped with a private bathroom accessible for people with disabilities and is decorated differently.

At the dedication ceremony on Friday, Thomas Wisnieski, director of the North Florida/South Georgia Veterans Health System, said Fisher Houses have saved families an estimated $200 million in lodging and transportation costs.

Wisnieski thanked donors and singled out the contributions of the late Gainesville veterans advocate Ed Van Buren, who died April 5.

Rick Fabiani, president of the Gainesville Fisher House Foundation, worked with Van Buren on the foundation's board of directors. His voice broke when he spoke of Van Buren and other supporters who died before the project was completed.

"Ed became my hero in his fight to stay alive," he said. "He almost made it to today."

Fabiani also applauded community members and local veterans groups who held various fundraisers for the Gainesville Fisher House.

"Truly, if it wasn't for every one of you, this house would not be here today," he said. "The mission for the Gainesville Fisher House is not over. Our biggest challenge now is letting folks know that this house is here and that it is for them."

U.S. Rep. Ted Yoho was also at the dedication ceremony and said the U.S. should feel honored and privileged to be able to take care of its veterans.

"The reason we have our freedoms is because of the dedication, commitment and sacrifice of our veterans, their families and the community at home that supports them," Yoho said.

The president of the national Fisher House Foundation, David Coker, said he was the first employee of the program when it began in 1994 and had 14 houses. Over the years, people have always asked him why the government doesn't build the Fisher Houses.

"The VA staff needs to focus on health care," he said. "This is something we can do to help them. We have a duty to provide an environment where families can focus on healing while their loved ones are receiving medical care."

Ron Schimel was sitting in the crowd as he listened to the dedication ceremony. He said his group, the Gainesville Harley Owners Group, held three charity drives for the Gainesville Fisher House.

He, like most of the riders in the Harley owners group, is a military veteran.

"We didn't have Fisher Homes when we came back from Vietnam," he said. "It's very important for our younger guys who come back now that we take care of their families."