A partnership of organizations that doles out free airline tickets to servicemembers and families broadened who is eligible to participate and where they may fly.

Last month, the nonprofit Fisher House Foundation, which has partnered with the Department of Veterans Affairs, several airline companies and “Operation Hero Miles,” started flying families to VA medical treatment facilities to be at the bedside of troops recuperating from wounds sustained in Iraq, Afghanistan and the surrounding areas, Fisher House spokesman Jim Weiskopf said.

About 2,300 airline tickets have been distributed to troops and families, saving recipients about $2.3 million, Weiskopf said. “Every time we give away tickets, we’re saving the families about $1,000 they don’t have to pay in airfare.”

U.S. Rep. C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger, D-Md., started “Operation Hero Miles,” in November 2003 as a way for troops to collect free tickets when traveling on the two-week Rest and Recuperation leave from the Middle East. Businesses and people donate frequent flyer miles to the program so troops don’t have to pay the airfares to get home.

The program linked with Fisher House Foundation, which began distributing donated miles to families so they could visit troops at U.S. military medical treatment facilities.

Now it has grown so military men and women can use the donated tickets to fly home to be with their families, or have family fly to wherever they are recuperating.

With R&R flights fully funded by the military, miles donated to “Operation Hero Miles” pay primarily for families’ trips to hospitals, said Heather Moeder Molino, Ruppersberger’s spokeswoman. “And there is a huge need for that,” she said.

Servicemembers make the initial requests for tickets, which are forwarded to the Fisher House Foundation by the social work staff or family assistance centers at the medical centers. Requests also can come from service casualty offices.

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