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Fisher Houses help vets' families cope

The opening of a Fisher House for families of wounded veterans being treated at the West L.A. medical center offers welcome help.

February 09, 2009

The Fisher House Foundation opened its 43rd guest house for the families of wounded American servicemen and women on Friday. This one -- next to the Veterans Administration's West Los Angeles medical center -- is the city's first, following those at military and veterans hospitals in Palo Alto, San Diego and Fairfield, Calif. Yet officials here were pressing for a second house even before the new one opened. As large as the VA's budget is for medical care, there's not enough to help cover the costs borne by ailing veterans' families. And those costs are rising, driven by the changing nature of wartime injuries and medical care.

The Fisher House endeavor started in 1990, when New York developer Zachary Fisher and his wife decided to build "comfort homes" next to military hospitals to give relatives a free place to stay when family members went in for treatment. Backed by tens of millions of dollars in private donations and a sprinkling of government funding, the foundation has built Fisher Houses at the major Defense Department medical centers. The main task now is to do the same for VA hospitals, dozens of which have asked for at least one home. The foundation has broken ground on six additional houses and is developing plans for eight or nine more, with a total price tag of nearly $70 million.

Although they're a fraction of the VA's caseload, young veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq are posing some of the biggest challenges. More are returning with catastrophic injuries -- the kind that would have been fatal 20 years ago -- as well as traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder. The average stay at a Fisher House used to be about two weeks, foundation officials say, but now it's three to four times as long for those whose relatives were injured in combat. Imagine paying a Brentwood hotel bill for 60 days, and you'll get an idea of how beneficial the new Fisher House will be for the spouses, parents and children of vets undergoing lengthy treatments for battlefield injuries.

The free lodging and plane tickets provided through the foundation have saved more than 11,000 families upward of $100 million. But there's an important symbolic value to the effort too. While two wars have been waged "off budget," financed with money borrowed from future generations, the American public has shared in little of the sacrifice made by its men and women in uniform. The Fisher Houses and their private contributors are an exception. We need more efforts like theirs.

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