US & Canada

First UK Fisher House to help wounded military

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Media captionSue Hawkins' son Ed was seriously injured in Afghanistan while serving with the marines

As Britain announces that it is adopting the US concept of charity-funded houses for families of ill or wounded soldiers, the BBC's Joan Soley looks at how the Fisher House programme has helped American service personnel who have been scarred by war.

As is often the case, great ideas are also simple. The impetus for the Fisher House Foundation stemmed from one family seeing an obvious problem and taking it upon themselves to find a solution.

Any parent or spouse of a member of the military will tell you their biggest fear: receiving that phone call or that knock on the door.

Debbie Douglas's son Levi was injured in Afghanistan. "My entire world stopped right then," she recalls. "Overwhelming - completely overwhelming; I didn't know what to do, who to call."

Although she had far more questions than answers where Levi was concerned, Debbie rushed to make the trip from California to Washington to be near him.

Concrete help

"There really aren't words to explain it. Any mother - they would know in their soul - you hear your son is gravely injured and you're so far away. I just needed to see my son."

But a week or more in a hotel in the nation's capital isn't cheap. Debbie said she had stayed in two hotels before hearing about Fisher House, and because of the cost, she was worried about how long she could afford to stay. That financial worry was on top of her concern for her son and the multiple surgeries he was going through.

Image caption Brent Hendrix, who was injured in Iraq, says the Fisher House has helped him stay close to the hospital

For people like Debbie, this is where Fisher House steps in and offers concrete help. Families of military personnel who have been injured or become ill can be given a free room in a house near the hospital where their relative is being treated.

The houses are large and meant to be shared, as they range from eight to 21 bedrooms; the communal areas in each house, such as the industrial-sized kitchens and children's playrooms are rarely quiet, as Fisher Houses are usually at maximum capacity.

The first of these houses was built in 1991 in Maryland, a few miles from Washington, and is next to what is now the largest military hospital in the United States. Today, there 54 in operation throughout the country and more are built each year.

Members of the military who are undergoing long-term rehabilitation can find themselves in limbo, as they may need physical therapy and check-ups, but home is hundreds of miles away. This is the case for Brent Hendrix, a 27-year-old veteran of the Iraq war. Two things are noticeable on first meeting Brent; he is 6ft 7in tall and he's missing his right leg.

"I was injured in Iraq in 2006. I was blown up by an IED (improvised explosive device) that my vehicle rolled over. In this whole time between then and now, I've had 66 surgeries. I'm still in recovery mode, and I needed a place to stay on base. The Fisher House allowed me to be here - and I'm getting ready here pretty soon for my next surgery," he said.

Shared funding

Image caption Ken Fisher said his family started the project to support the troops.

This US concept is now being exported to the UK. One of the next to be built will be next to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, where all injured British military members are treated.

Funding for the house has been shared between the US and UK in the form of charities like Help for Heroes and Fisher House Foundation. The estimated cost is £4.2m ($6.6m) and the Birmingham house is scheduled to open in April next year.

Ken Fisher, chairman of Fisher House Foundation, said that his family began the project as a straightforward gesture of support for the troops and their families. The charity was without political leanings, and he stressed that those who served did not make policy.

While only a small proportion of the population have served in the military, each soldier, sailor, airman and marine has a family. When a member of the military is injured or killed, many other people can be affected.

While the war in Iraq might have drawn to a close last year, and fighting in Afghanistan may well wrap up as scheduled by 2014, there is no real end for a member of the armed services while they are on active service.

At any moment they might be sent to do their job, anywhere in the world - and they might get hurt doing it. As long as that continues to occur, families in the US - and soon in the UK - can be nearby at a Fisher House while they recover.