Eric Watkins is a frequent visitor to the Veterans Affairs (VA) Medical Center in Washington, D.C., where the 66-year-old Army veteran sees doctors for post-traumatic stress disorder and other health conditions that surfaced long after his tour of duty in Vietnam. He and his wife, Naomi, drive more than an hour each month from their home in Lusby, Md., and often stay overnight in the nation's capital after a long day of appointments and testing.
The couple check in at top-notch accommodations — right across the street from the medical center. And the best part: It's free.
The Watkins are guests at Fisher House, one of 71 homes located at major military and VA medical centers across the United States. The homes, also in Germany and the United Kingdom, are an oasis for military families, allowing them to be close to their loved ones who have served the country as they receive medical care and treatment.
"If it weren't for Fisher House, I don't know how we would have managed," Naomi Watkins says. "We have saved thousands of dollars by staying here. And we have received comfort and support from other families who stay here."
Fisher House Foundation, the not-for-profit organization founded by New York real estate magnate Zachary Fisher and his wife, Elizabeth, provides funding for the homes, builds them and then gives them to the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs. In turn, those government entities operate and maintain the houses in a special public-private partnership with the foundation. Volunteers are welcomed to assist with everything from providing meals for residents and helping with housekeeping to holiday decorating and babysitting.
Fisher House, whose motto is "A family's love is good medicine," has been an invaluable resource to military families since the first homes opened in 1991 at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington and the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. Each house, beautifully furnished and decorated to reflect the local region, offers up to 21 suites that can accommodate 16 to 42 family members. Guests enjoy the spacious living and dining areas, laundry facilities and huge gourmet kitchen, where they can cook and share meals.
"My goal is to build a house wherever it's needed," says foundation chairman and CEO Kenneth Fisher. "Being part of the solution is something that always makes you feel good."
The foundation also administers the Hero Miles program, which allows frequent fliers to donate their unused airline miles to provide free tickets to military families, and the Hotel for Heroes program, in which hotel points can be donated to cover lodging when Fisher House residences are full.
Minie Curry of San Antonio, benefited from Fisher House programs after her husband, Army Sgt. Anson Curry, suffered a severe brain injury from a grenade explosion in Afghanistan in 2011. She stayed in the home in Palo Alto, Calif., for nine months while her husband received acute and rehabilitative care. Her three children and other family members were able to join her there, thanks to Hero Miles.
"All of us do not have the financial means to spend so much money on hotel and transportation. Fisher House has been a huge blessing to us," she says.
Ken Fisher says he receives countless letters from appreciative military spouses and family members like Curry. He recalls one simple note that said it all: "'Dear Ken. Thank you for allowing me to spend Christmas with my son.' If that doesn't give you some sense that you're doing good, nothing will."
Barbranda Lumpkins Walls is a features editor for AARP Media.
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