The GlobeBy Cpl. Damany S. Coleman
“He was injured in Afghanistan,” said Genesis Elias, wife of Cpl. Ritchie Elias, with 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment. “I came to see him and the Naval Hospital let us know we could stay here at the Fisher House. I set up an appointment and they took us right in.”
Cpl. Elias was wounded on deployment after surviving a blast from an enemy grenade. Now, at the Fisher House aboard Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, the Elias’ have spent a few weeks at the Fisher House, taking advantage of the top-of-the-line accommodations.
Anywhere else, the family could have expected to pay hundreds of dollars per night, adding to the complications and potentially slowing down the emotional and physical healing processes.
“If this house wasn’t here, we would be at a hotel or I just wouldn’t be here with him at all,” said Ritchie. “We’re comfortable, they check up on us, we’re able to cook and shop and we don’t have to tip-toe around. It feels just like home.”
The first Fisher House was opened in June 1990 near the National Naval Medical Center Bethesda, Md. The creation of the Fisher House was in response to a need for temporary housing for families who shadowed their injured service member from one treatment facility to the next, due to costly hotel rates in the area.
“It’s clearly a place where service members would come for anything from training injuries to cancer diagnosis,” said Josie Callahan, manager for the MCB Camp Lejeune Fisher House. “But, Bethesda is right next to the Washington, D.C., metropolis, where lodging can be very expensive. The government per diem rate is well over $200, so families are looking at $250 to $300 a night to stay in the area. It was obviously a place where such an entity like the Fisher House was needed.”
Aside from expensive lodging, some of those families had already traveled once to their service member’s side, just to find out he would need additional care elsewhere.
Zachary Fisher, part owner of a real estate company that built some of the most esteemed office buildings in New York, was approached in 1990 by Pauline Trost, the wife of Retired Adm. Carlisle Trost, who was the Chief of Naval Operations at the time. She expressed the need for temporary lodging facilities for families at major military medical centers. The Fishers agreed to aid them, and built the first six Fisher Houses with their own money and staff.
“(The service member) is twice removed from where he once was and everything that he knows,” Callahan. “And in some cases, the families are following them to these places where they know no one or nothing of the area. On top of that, it goes into not having familiarity with military, which adds more confusion.”
Altogether, the houses have made nearly three million days of lodging available to family members since the program originated.
The Fisher House Foundation has created a total of 53 Fisher houses throughout the United States, including Hawaii and Alaska and one in Germany at the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center. These comfort homes serve more than 11,000 families annually. These homes enable family members to be close to a loved one at the most stressful of times – during the hospitalization for an unexpected illness, disease, or injury.
The Fisher House aboard the base features 12 plush, inviting bedrooms; a large dining room with a massive kitchen to match; a family room with an high-definition television; a laundry room fitted with two sets of front-load washer and dryers and a spacious patio.
Some of the rooms can be joined together to accommodate larger families. Also, every room in the facility has been suited to accommodate special needs families, such as residents in wheel chairs or elderly.
The kitchen has lockable storage space and Sub-Zero refrigerators. Outback by the patio, is a trail which leads directly to the hospital. Fisher House residents have been donated a pair of golf carts to use as a shuttle between the wounded warrior barracks, the house and the hospital, where they have priority parking.
Working at the Fisher House, Callahan said she has witnessed firsthand how families from all walks of life use the Fisher House facility as common ground to communicate and bond. Families speak about many different subjects, including sharing stories about their own son’s or daughter’s deployments and unit information or even what sports teams they root for on television.
“You hear a combination of conversations going on,” said Callahan. “They can only talk about military matters so much without causing more stress. I’ve heard lots of those conversations and they are just to see what the common ground is between the families to find out where they come from and what they’re here for.”
Callahan added that even the staff at the Fisher House gets involved to add extra aid for them.
“One of the key things about the Fisher House is that there is always a compassionate, empathetic staff on board,” said Callahan. “We live here, we’re a part of the community and even some of my staff are military spouses themselves. We all have some sort of tie to the military community in one capacity or another.”
The Camp Lejeune Fisher House also provides for the troops by having such a unique location, where Marines and sailors from an injured troops’ parent command can visit while he receives treatment at the Naval Hospital or even takes residence in the nearby Wounded Warrior Barracks.
“It’s exceptional being able to provide this service for service members,” said Callahan. “Both my father and step-father have served in the Marine Corps. I also have a brother and brother-in-law in the Army. For me, the decision to join the service wasn’t the right tone, but it doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate what they do and the sacrifices they make. To be able to serve in my own capacity in such a beautiful facility, I feel very fortunate.”
Callahan added that, like all Fisher Houses, the Camp Lejeune Fisher House does all it can to take care of both service members and their families.
“Every situation is different,” said Callahan. “Someone may stay with us for a week for a basic surgery and go back to their unit on limited duty, ‘hooking and jabbing’ and doing great things. For others, it may mean going to another military or civilian treatment facility for continued care. No Fisher House in the country takes reservations so it’s all on a day to day basis, but we certainly do our best.”