“This is Americans doing for Americans.”
BY Jonathan Gurwitz
Thursday, July 6, 2006
SAN ANTONIO–“I want to get back to active duty,” Staff Sgt. Steve Bosson told me in May. “I want to go back to my unit.”
Two years earlier, the native of York, S.C. had been on a rocket denial mission west of Baghdad with Delta Troop, 9th Cav, 1st Cavalry Division. After an ambush and a firefight with insurgents, Mr. Bosson went to secure an RPG launcher lying near a wounded fighter. The launcher was booby-trapped. When he picked up the weapon, a grenade exploded, shredding his left leg.
Today, Mr. Bosson is at Brooke Army Medical Center (BAMC) at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio. After more than 50 surgeries, he is fitted with a prosthesis and near the end of his rehabilitation process. On Friday, he was scheduled to go in for yet another revision surgery.
Since the fall of 2001, BAMC has treated more than 2,300 casualties from Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom. The trauma center is heartbreakingly filled with the mangled and burned bodies of young Americans. For the wounded, the love and care of family members is indispensable. The painful rehabilitation process is made more bearable by the presence of loved ones. And many times, that would not be possible were it not for Fisher Houses, like the one where I met Steve Bosson.
Fisher Houses are homes away from home for the families of wounded service members. They were born from a discussion in 1990 between the late Zachary Fisher, New York developer and philanthropist, and Pauline Trost, wife of Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Carlisle Trost. Mrs. Trost, who was a volunteer at Bethesda Naval Hospital, relayed the story of a sailor sleeping in his car because he couldn’t afford a hotel room while his wife was recuperating from surgery. The account inspired Mr. Fisher and Adm. Trost to begin a bureaucratic fight to create an innovative partnership between government and private philanthropy.
Slashing through red tape, the first Fisher House opened in Bethesda eight months later. Today, 35 Fisher Houses are in operation, all but two in the U.S. Three more are under construction: two additional facilities in San Antonio to accommodate a lengthy waiting list of families at BAMC, and another in Tampa.
All this has been accomplished entirely with private funds from the Fisher family and from corporate and individual donations. The Pentagon proffers land to the Fisher House Foundation (fisherhouse.org) for the construction phase. When the houses are complete, the foundation turns them back over to the Department of Defense for operation and maintenance.
“We don’t want government money,” says Arnold Fisher, Zachary Fisher’s nephew and the driving force behind the Fisher family’s efforts. “This is Americans doing for Americans.”
Bill White, a director of the Fisher House Foundation and president of the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund, another of the Fisher family’s philanthropic endeavors, says the houses have saved military families in excess of $70 million. In addition to offering housing, the foundation has partnered with the Hero Miles program to provide airline tickets for the families of wounded service members. Fisher House Foundation travel agents have booked more than 7,000 flights.
The Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund (fallenheroesfund.org) evolved from Zachary Fisher’s desire to provide financial assistance to the families of service members killed in the line of duty. Without fanfare, Mr. Fisher and his family directed assistance to dependents of military personnel killed in the USS Iowa explosion, the Gulf War, the bombings of the Khobar Towers and the USS Cole, along with other military operations.
After Sept. 11, 2001, the Fisher family established the fund and opened it to public donations. Grants of $10,000 went out to the widows and widowers of military personnel who lost their lives in Afghanistan, $5,000 to their children. At the time, the U.S. government military combat death benefit was only $6,000.
Congress raised the death benefit to $12,420 in 2003 and $100,000 last year. With the U.S. government finally providing respectable compensation, the board of directors of the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund took on an even more ambitious project. The extraordinary number of catastrophic injuries from the war on terror has created a critical need for long-term rehabilitative care.
Progress on a $10 million Military Amputee Training Center at Walter Reed Army Medical Center has languished for more than two years. At the suggestion of Lt. Gen. Kevin Kiley, surgeon general of the Army, the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund committed to build a 60,000-square-foot, state-of-the art rehabilitation center at Fort Sam Houston.
Ground was broken on the $37 million project last October. Under the watchful eye of Arnold Fisher, the Center for the Intrepid is on schedule to open in January. Like the two Fisher Houses already in operation and the two that are currently under construction at Fort Sam Houston, the center is being built entirely with private contributions from over 500,000 donors.
Staff Sgt. Bosson’s determination to get back to his unit, which will redeploy to Iraq in November, isn’t just wishful thinking. Among 447 amputee patients from Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom treated in all Army facilities, 10 have returned to active duty. “I’d rate my chances at 90%,” he says.
In this nation of 300 million, the burden of the war on terror falls on an exceedingly small community. Beyond the obscured corridors of Walter Reed and Brooke Army Medical Center, normalcy reigns in the homeland. Perhaps more than anything else, the lack of a sense of shared sacrifice has attenuated the brutal reality of this conflict.
And while there are many things that governments can do, there are some things, such as helping the fallen warriors of the voluntary armed forces, that citizens of a free nation should do. “Don’t use the word charity with regard to the military,” Arnold Fisher declares passionately. “This is duty.”