Fisher Houses: Comfort zones for wounded and families

Tom Philpott

“It’s unbelievable that places like this exist,” said Brian Alaniz, 29, a Navy hospitalman who lost part of his right leg and suffered other wounds just four days after President Bush ordered the invasion last March.
Brian isn’t referring to Iraq, however. What he wants to talk about are Fisher Houses. He knew nothing about them before he was wounded. But he saw what comfort zones they can be for military families when loved ones need care at military medical centers or select VA hospitals far from home.
About 8500 families a year use Fisher Houses, staying an average of 12 days and paying daily rates of $8 and $12. This year, so far, families of 200 wounded service members from Iraq and Afghanistan have joined the mix. For these guests, rooms are free, said Jim Weiskopf of the Fisher House Foundation.
Brian entered the Navy in April 2001. In corpsman school, he met Ammi, now 21. They married while Brian was in field medicine training with Marines. They were assigned to Twentynine Palms, Calif., but Brian soon deployed with 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines.
In the war, the battalion raced toward Basra to protect the oil fields. On March 21, their convoy pulled off the road into a desert area. As they stretched their legs and opened meal packets, they heard a “boom.” About 20 yards from Brian, SSgt. Eric Alva had stepped on a mine. Brian grabbed a medical bag, ran toward his injured supply chief, gave the bag to a physician and raced back for a stretcher and trauma kit. While on one knee, assembling a suction device, Brian moved his foot and detonated another mine.
Brian and Alva were evacuated to Kuwait. A surgeon there told Brian the bones below his knee were too shattered to repair and would have to be amputated.
“I was thinking about my wife,” he said. “We didn’t know a lot of people in Twentynine Palms. Was there anybody there to help her get through this?”
After surgery, Brian was flown to Germany. In a phone call, Ammi explained that she and Brian’s family would meet him at his next stop, Washington D.C. They all had rooms there, near the military hospital, and for free.
“My wife tried to explain to me what Fisher Houses were,” said Brian. “I just didn’t understand.”
But his family was there as promised March 30.
His wife stayed in the Fisher House at the National Naval Medical Center, Bethesda, Md., where Brian spent his first weeks. His parents stayed at the Fisher House next to Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Brian one day was allowed to visit.
“That’s when I really realized what it was, a home away from home,” he said.
That was the vision of New York building contractor and philanthropist Zachary Fisher and his wife Elizabeth. Between 1990 and his death in 1999, Fisher had 26 houses built for military and veteran families, taking his cue from Ronald McDonald homes for families of ill children.
Each home has eight bedrooms plus a kitchen, dining room, living room and laundry. Six more have opened since Fisher’s death, financed now through fund-raising, private contributions and the Combined Federal Campaign. New homes are being built at a pace of three every two years.
“When we started, it was envisioned that families would stay in the houses while service members were in the hospital. More and more service members [now] are outpatients,” Weiskopf said. “Consequently, more of them also stay in Fisher homes.”
Brian did. When transferred to Walter Reed for physical therapy, he and Ammi settled in the room vacated by his parents. They stayed four months. Now they rent a townhouse. Brian is on limited duty until a medical review board next year decides if he can stay in service.
The Fisher House website is:
www.fisherhouse.org.
Its toll free number is (888) 294-8560. Letters or checks can be sent to Fisher House Foundation, 1401 Rockville Pike, Suite 600, Rockville, MD 20852.

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