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Home for wounded troops at Texas base celebrates 10 years

SAN ANTONIO — The philosophy at the Warrior and Family Support Center, a hub of activity for troops recovering from their wounds, is summed up by a sign just inside the building's lobby: “Life is all about how you handle Plan B.”

“That's exactly right,” said Judith Markelz, the center's director, “except some of them are on Plans C and D, because this wasn't in the plan.”

Troops, their families and volunteers celebrated the 10th anniversary of the center Wednesday, which itself was something of a Plan B.

As the 2003 invasion of Iraq settled into a bitter stalemate, the trickle of wounded to Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston soon became a steady stream, drawing families to San Antonio.

Thousands of troops have spent months and even years in recovery here, and their families are considered a crucial part of that process.

One soldier at the ceremony, Army Reserve Staff Sgt. Daniel Burgess, 35, of San Antonio and formerly Cleveland, Ohio, has been here since stepping on a landmine on Nov. 20, 2011.

“You're around people that are going through the exact same thing that you're going through, so you might have a bad day at rehab and meet somebody else who's had another bad day at rehab,” he said. “You're able to feed off of their emotions to help each other out and make each other feel better, and be able to persevere and keep pushing forward. You can't leave with a bad attitude.”

Rocking chairs, leather sofas, arts, crafts, games and food are staples at the center, which has had close to 1 million visits since opening. Lt. Gen. Perry Wiggins, commander of U.S. Army North, said volunteers also play a big role.

“You see a genuine love and concern, and I think that's what the soldiers and their families need more than sometimes the physical care,” he said.

The facility started small, with the then-Soldier and Family Support Center opening Dec. 3, 2003, in a 1,000-square-foot area at the Powless Guest House, a modest post hotel. It was a new idea, but has since become the model for 30 other centers at posts nationwide.

Three years after it opened, with wounded troops from Iraq seemingly everywhere at Fort Sam, Markelz told local developers Les and Steve Huffman she needed money to replace broken Xbox video games favored by the soldiers.

“'Judith, think outside the box,'” Terry Frost, then Fort Sam's deputy director of morale, welfare and recreation, recalled Les Huffman telling her. “'Think bigger. Think grander.'”

There was a vacant lot across the street from the guest house, and Markelz said it would be the perfect place for a larger building. A lot of details remained to be ironed out with the Army, but the Huffmans raised the $5 million needed to build the center as well as another $4.2 million for a nearby amphitheater set in the middle of a park.

The new center opened in 2008 and is 12 times larger than the original.

It includes a garden with plants designed to attract butterflies. After the ceremony, Bob Shifflett watched his grandchildren, Kendra and Logan, both 7, as the butterflies swirled around them.

Shifflett and the kids have been here since his son, Sgt. 1st Class Justin Ryan Shifflett, 35, was badly burned in mid-September by an Afghan suicide car bomb. He got out of ICU last week.

“It's a place to go other than just sitting in the hotel or walking back and forth waiting for visiting hours, a home-cooked meal,” said Shifflett, 62, of Valley Springs, Calif. “The kids have a place to play, and you meet other families in the same situation.”

Call it Plan B. Or C.

“I promised them that we would fill this building and these gardens with laughter, joy, excitement and caring as a growing tribute to our warriors,” Markelz said, “and that we would never forget our mission — to meet the needs of the wounded warriors and their families with dedication and with love.”
 

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