It was every Army wife’s nightmare: Jessica Allen’s husband, Chaz, was injured in an IED explosion that took both of his legs. But knowing the love of her life wouldn’t walk unassisted again wasn’t the hardest part. That came later, while Chaz convalesced at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., and Jessica and her children were hundreds of miles away in their home in Tennessee, wondering about his condition and worrying about how to pay for his treatment.
“Wounded soldiers are stuck at whatever military facility you are supposed to be at until the Army tells you to leave,” Jessica says. “I had to drop everything I was doing. I was running a tax business, the girls were in school, I ran five Girl Scout troops at the time he was injured…and I had to drop all of that to go take care of him.”
Jessica was on the verge of tapping into her emergency funds to pay for flights and hotels in order to be close to her husband’s hospital bed. Increasingly anxious, she reached out to the Fisher House Foundation, a group that had supported many of her friends when their loved ones in the service had been injured. The Foundation offered to cover the cost of her plane trips and provide her with housing.
“When they called me up and said they were going to take care of all of this, I choked up,” Jessica says. “They helped me pick flights so I could be with Chaz by lunch time and back [in Tennessee a week later] when the kids got out of school. We would have made it work. But it was awesome to have someone step up and say ‘No this is what we do. We raise money, let us help.’ ”
Helping is the Fisher House Foundation’s business. Their efforts hit the headlines in mid-October. When the government shutdown imperiled death benefits to families who had lost a loved one in the line of duty, Fisher House stepped in, offering to cover the costs. President Obama later signed a bill that made sure families would get back pay for the assistance they were owed, and the foundation decided to assist the families in need by tiding them over until the government funding arrived.
“In half a week, we received a half a million in donations,” says foundation president Dave Cooker. “We’ve already distributed $200,000, and we’re committed to distributing $725,000.”
The Fisher House Foundation is a nonprofit organization that dates back to 1991. Its founder, Zachary Fisher, was a prominent residential and commercial real estate mogul in Brooklyn, N.Y., who was prevented from joining the service in World War II because of a leg injury. Over the years, he found other ways to aid the cause of the troops instead, assisting the United States Coast Guard in constructing coastal fortifications and helping spearhead the opening of the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York City, currently the largest naval museum in the world. Looking for further avenues of support for the armed services, Zachary realized he could give back the best way he knew how—by building. A navy admiral told him that the military desperately needed something similar to Ronald McDonald houses—conveniently located places where families of wounded troops could get support and a good night’s sleep.
Since its birth, the Fisher House Foundation has built and donated 62 comfort homes to the military—places families can stay while visiting an injured loved one receiving treatment at military hospitals or Veterans Affairs medical centers across the country (they have also built facilities in Germany and the U.K.).
The Fisher Foundation is still family-run today. Ken Fisher, the great nephew of Zachary, is the current CEO; he took over after his uncle’s passing in 1999.
“It’s very different from how it was back when Zach started Fisher House. Back then, the injuries we saw were from training accidents or routine problems that you see among civilians: cancer, complicated pregnancy, car crash,” Ken told Philanthropy magazine. “Now we’re seeing a lot of combat injuries. It can be tough.”
Each Fisher House has between eight and 21 family suites, with shared living rooms, kitchens and dining rooms. Any active-duty or retired vets are eligible to use the group’s accommodations. Fisher House’s Hero Miles program also covers the costs of air travel—by providing donated frequent flier miles for trips to the hospital by families that could not otherwise afford it.
“When a loved one is wounded, you want the best medical care possible and you want to be there. The military and the VA health-care systems provide some of the best health care available in the world and country. But it can be a challenge finding affordable lodging,” says Cooker. Eliminating that barrier, he says, “is a way that we can show that we appreciate their loved ones’ service and sacrifice. The houses become a symbol of support for our country.”
When Danny Burgess was injured in 2012 and had to stay for treatment at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas, his wife and two daughters moved from Cleveland on Valentine’s Day to stay at a Fisher House near the hospital.
“It was really nice because the Fisher House right there is located directly by the hospital, directly by my husband’s therapy so we were able to literally walk everywhere we needed to go,” Genette Burgess says. “It helped with his recovery process immensely to have his family right there. And it helped my daughters to not only see him recover but to see other soldiers in the same position, other families in the same position. They grew from that.”
The Fisher House not only put a roof over Genette’s head; it provided her family a support system. For the 11 months that they lived on site, the other residents of the house provided child care for her daughters when she had to be with her husband for his surgeries. They also helped Genette get through the experience of uprooting her family to care for a loved one in pain.
“We didn’t have to worry about what we were going to do, or having to afford a hotel room,” Genette says. “I think it was very beneficial to meet other families that were going through the same situation because you form bonds. And it’s therapy, too.”
In 2012 alone Fisher Houses hosted 19,000 families. In 2013 they are expecting to host 21,000, as they continue to build three to four new houses annually.
“This is a program designed in peacetime, but it has been invaluable in war,” Cooker says of the Fisher Houses. “The houses will continue to have a mission. They may not see as many combat wounded someday, but we certainly hope they will always be around to bless families.”