Military Update: Fisher House a refuge for families of ailing
Navy hospitalman Brian Alaniz lost part of his right leg and suffered other wounds just four days after President Bush ordered the Iraq invasion last March.
“It’s unbelievable that places like this exist,” he said.
Alaniz, 29, isn’t referring to Iraq, but about the Fisher House. He knew nothing about it before he was wounded. But he saw what comfort zones Fisher Houses can be for military families needing a place to stay when loved ones need care at military medical centers, or select VA hospitals, far from home.
The usual mix of Fisher House guests are active-duty families, many with children needing special care, and an older population of retirees, veterans and their spouses. About 8,500 families a year use Fisher Houses, stay an average of 12 days and pay daily room rates of $8 and $12.
Those in Europe can avail themselves of two Fisher Houses at Landstuhl Army Medical Center in Germany. In the Pacific, the Tripler Army Medical Center in Honolulu hosts one.
This year, so far, families of 200 wounded servicemembers from Iraq and Afghanistan have joined the mix. Fisher Houses for them are a kind of sanctuary to help transition from war to the rest of their lives. For these guests, rooms are free, said Jim Weiskopf of the Fisher House Foundation.
Alaniz entered the Navy in April 2001. In corpsman school, he met Ammi, now 21. They married July 4 that year while Alaniz was in field medicine training with the Marines. Both were assigned to Twentynine Palms, Calif., but Alaniz soon deployed with the 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines.
In the war, the battalion raced toward Basra to protect oil fields. Marines were short on supplies, Alaniz said, including ambulances. Alaniz had no magazine for his 9 mm pistol. In a fight, he would have to load and fire one round at a time.
On March 21, about noon, their convoy pulled off the road. As they stretched their legs and opened meal packets, they heard a “boom.”
Staff Sgt. Eric Alva, beside his Humvee 20 yards from Alaniz, had stepped on a mine. Alaniz 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, Alaniz moved his foot and detonated another mine.
He rolled onto his back. His right leg felt like it was on fire. He looked down and saw the laces of his boot now faced him. When a physician called for trauma shears to cut away his pants, Alaniz handed him his pair. The doctor asked for a bandage and Alaniz pulled one from his vest. A shot of morphine took forever to kick in, he recalled.
Alaniz and Alva were evacuated by ambulance and then helicopter to Kuwait. A surgeon there told Alaniz that bones below the knee were too shattered to repair. He had to amputate it.
“When he told me that, everything kind of seemed like a dream,” he said. He also had shrapnel wounds in his buttocks and upper legs.
“I was thinking about my wife, if she’d been told I was injured,” 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, Alaniz was flown to Germany. He spoke by phone with his family. In one call, Ammi explained that she and Alaniz’s family, from Austin, would meet him at his next stop, in Washington, D.C. They all had free rooms there, near the military hospital.
“My wife tried to explain to me what Fisher Houses were,” said Alaniz. “I just didn’t understand.”
His family was there as promised March 30.
“It meant a lot to be able to see them and to let them know that I was OK,” Alaniz said.
His wife stayed in the Fisher House at the National Naval Medical Center, Bethesda, Md., the hospital where Alaniz spent his first weeks. His parents stayed at the Fisher House next to Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Alaniz one day was allowed to visit.
“My mom cooked,” he said. “That’s when I really realized what it was.” His parents stayed three weeks. 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. But the Fishers wanted to expand on their history of helping service families.
Each home has eight bedrooms, a kitchen, dining room, living room and laundry. Six more have opened since Fisher’s death, financed now though fund-raising, private contributions and the Combined Federal Campaign. New homes are being built at a pace of one every eight months.
“When we started, it was envisioned that families would stay in the houses while servicemembers were in the hospital. More and more servicemembers [now] are outpatients,” Weiskopf said. “Consequently, more of them also stay in Fisher homes.”
Alaniz 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 town house. Alaniz is on limited duty until a medical review board next year decides if he can stay in service.
The Fisher House Web site is www.fisherhouse.org. The number, which might not be toll-free from outside the United States, is (888) 294-8560. Letters or checks can be sent to Fisher House Foundation, 1401 Rockville Pike, Suite 600, Rockville, MD 20852.