By Sarah Trefethen
Kenneth Fisher is a senior partner at of New York’s pre-eminent real estate firms. In a phone interview the day after Memorial Day, however, the statistics he rattled off were not about square feet and dollar signs, but lost limbs and traumatic brain injury.
“Among our veterans today there are 1,600 amputees,” he said. “This is the highest instances of amputees since the civil war.”
Modern medical science has made it possible for today’s soldiers to live through catastrophic injuries they would not have survived in previous generations, but still often leaving them in military hospitals for extended stays far from their homes.
Since 1991, Fisher Brothers, through the non-profit organization the Fisher House Foundation, has put its building expertise to work creating multi-family residential facilities within walking distance of military hospitals. The buildings are on federal land, and after construction is complete, the organization gives them as a gift to the Department of Veterans Affairs to own and operate as a free place for the families visiting hospitalized soldiers to stay.
Today, there are 60 Fisher Houses, including two in Germany. The largest have 20 private rooms for families, and also feature common spaces like kitchens and dining rooms where the families can get to know each other.
According to Fisher, the buildings serve 19,000 families a year — and number that is only projected to grow as more houses are built — and in 21 years have served almost 200,000 families with 4.5 million total nights of lodging.
The foundation also offers a range of other programs, including scholarships for children and even spouses of deployed service members. In the latter case, Fisher explained, “They might not have to spend all their time at home alone worrying about what might happen, and can go out and do something good for themselves.”
In 2010, a Fisher House opened at Dover Air Force Base, where the bodies of fallen soldiers are returned to the U.S.. Before the house was built, Fisher said, “there was nothing there for families. If they could get there, they would have to do the unthinkable, which is bring home a loved one and go six or seven miles and stay at a cheap hotel. That doesn’t seem like fair treatment after what they’ve sacrificed.”
The organization was founded by Zachary Fisher, Ken Fischer’s uncle, who also spearheaded the founding of the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum as an alternative to the scrapping of the old aircraft carrier.
“He got such a sense of patriotism and he so enjoyed doing it, and this is a segment of society (the military) that is so underappreciated, that he wanted to do something else,” the nephew said.
From Pauline Trost, the wife of the chief of naval operations, Zach Fisher learned of the families of wounded veterans forced to search for affordable accommodation to be near the hospital.
He funded the construction of the first 10 Fisher Houses out of his own pocket, Ken Fisher said.
Today, the organization is a highly regarded charity. When President Barack Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, the Fisher Houses got $250,000 of his prize money, the largest single gift the president made to any one organization when dividing up the award.
Soldiers get more respect today than they did in the early 90s when Fisher House was first formed, Fisher said, but there is still more that could be done.
“At least today they hear a ‘thank you for your service,’ which is more than the Vietnam and Korea veterans heard,” he said.
“But ‘thanks for your service’ isn’t enough anymore. We owe these men and women more than I think even I could ever know.”
The Mental Health Association of New York City will honor Kenneth Fisher and his family at its annual benefit gala on June 6. More information about the foundation is available online, at www.fisherhouse.org.