You’ve probably received the chain e-mail about how Denzel Washington, visiting one of the two Fisher Houses serving Brooke Army Medical Center (BAMC) in San Antonio, was so moved by the bravery of our wounded servicemen that he whipped out his checkbook on the spot and donated enough money to build a third Fisher House for the boys.
Not quite. But close enough for Ken Fisher.
“Yeah, I get that e-mail all the time,” says Fisher, chairman of the Fisher House Foundation, and whose uncle Zachary Fisher founded the program. “People say ‘Denzel built a house, Denzel built an ark, Denzel built a rocket ship.’ I’ve heard it all.”
“Denzel Washington didn’t write a check that day, but he has been very generous. In fact, Denzel and his wife Pauletta are now board members and are very active in supporting these heroes,” Fisher says. “And that email has actually helped us spread the word about Fisher House, so it all works out.”
The idea for Fisher House came when a Navy wife named Pauline Trost saw a young sailor and his family struggling to get to and from Bethesda Naval Medical Center for treatment in the 1970s. Years later, her husband Carlisle Trost became an admiral and, eventually, chief of Naval Operations. He got a call in 1990 from Zach Fisher asking what more he could do to support the troops, and Admiral Trost shared his wife’s idea.
Eight months later, President George H. W. Bush dedicated the first Fisher House, in Bethesda.
At first, supporting the houses was a low-key, and largely family-driven, effort. Ken Fisher recalls “beating on doors and twisting arms” to raise money for the first Fisher Houses throughout the 90’s, and even as the wounded began returning from Afghanistan and Iraq. When a Washington D.C., radio station held a holiday season fund drive in December 2004, most listeners had no idea what the Fisher Houses were.
“We used to compare them to Ronald McDonald houses to help people understand the mission,” says Dave Coker, executive director of the Fisher House Foundation. “It’s a way to support the medical professionals in the hospitals by giving the wounded and their family a home.”
Today there are 38 Fisher Houses with thousands of donors in support. Corporate America has gotten involved, too. Sears did a Valentine’s Day “Have a Heart” promotion earlier this year, and Best Buy customers helped send 300 laptops to Fisher Houses for wounded servicemen to use to stay in touch with the world.
Dave Coker is particularly excited about airlines supporting the Hero Miles program that lets people donate frequent-flier miles so Fisher House can bring the wounded and their families together. Fisher House has used those miles to obtain 11,000 much-needed plane tickets.
The surge in Iraq is, sadly, likely to bring a surge in demand for space at Fisher Houses, but Ken Fisher is determined to meet that need.
“If you had told me that by 2010 there would be 21 new houses and at total of 58 houses from Landstuhl, Germany to Honolulu, I wouldn’t have believed you,” Ken Fisher said on the eve of the latest Fisher House dedication. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Jim Nicholson and other dignitaries gathered on August 6 for the ribbon cutting, not far from the James Haley VA Hospital in Tampa, Fla. The decision to build in Tampa was no coincidence.
“James Haley specializes in treating traumatic brain injury,” Fisher says. “TBI has become the signature injury of this war, so we are pushing our schedule to get new houses up and running near Level One Polytrauma facilities, places like BAMC in San Antonio and Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center in Richmond.”
Fisher Houses are built to comfort families, but comfort can only do so much. Dave Coker tells of the family who attended the opening of a Fisher House in Seattle. “A couple came up to me after the ceremony to tell me about their son who was wounded in combat and stayed in a Fisher House, and how much it meant to them,” Coker said.
“Their son didn’t survive. And yet they came out to support the Fisher House and what it does for families, and that meant everything to us.”
And while the Denzel Washington story may not be entirely accurate, there are other tales just as profound. Early in the Iraq war, when the Fisher House Foundation was still struggling, Coker received a call about a young soldier, an immigrant from Nigeria, who died on an Iraqi battlefield.
The young soldier wasn’t a citizen. Most of his family was still in Nigeria. But he gave his life in combat for a nation he hoped to one day call his own.
His family wanted to attend his funeral here in America, but they couldn’t afford plane tickets. Could the Fisher House help?
“Nigeria is a long way away,” Coker noted. “We barely had enough Hero Miles to cover the tickets, assuming we could find a flight. And, technically speaking, this isn’t really part of our mission. But the decision was made that, if we had to buy the tickets outright, that hero was going to be buried by a loving family and a grateful nation. We got the tickets.”
Not long after that, the urban-myth e-mail began circulating the internet. Donations began to increase. By the end of that year, Fisher House had received more donated frequent-flier miles than ever before.
A Hollywood ending, courtesy of Denzel Washington.
— Michael Graham is a radio talk-show host in Boston.