CAPITAL CULTURE: Families of war wounded uprooted to DC as troops recover, learn to walk again

By Kimberly Hefling, AP
Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Caring for Washington’s warriors away from home

WASHINGTON — Michelle Ford had newborn twins and a husband severely wounded in Afghanistan when she got the offer to move into a group home on the campus of Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

Living with other families made her apprehensive, but she agreed. It turned out to be a wise decision.

While the rest of Washington is wrapped up in its holiday hustle, the Ford family is finding the homey atmosphere and camaraderie of Fisher House to be a salve and a source of support as husband Derrick recovers from injuries suffered during a roadside bombing in Afghanistan in mid-August. The couple and 3-month-old twins Trinity and Dennis live with 10 other families, each of whom has a service member or relative being cared for at the hospital.

“It’s actually been really nice being able to live with other people in the same kind of situation that you’re in,” said Derrick, a 22-year-old Army sergeant, whose leg was amputated below the knee.

Walter Reed is just six miles from the White House, where political decisions drive the nation’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the families at Fisher House live in a different world, one full of medical appointments, crying babies, and small accomplishments as the wounded learn to adjust to life-changing injuries.

The families must grapple with a new and, in some ways, foreign city during what already is one of the most difficult times in their lives. Even Washington’s daunting traffic adds to the strain.

It all leads the families to lean on one another, which in turn makes the recovery go more smoothly, says Derrick, who probably will be in outpatient care at Walter Reed until summer.

For the Fords, just getting from one building to another is challenging. When they go for walks, Michelle pushes Derrick’s wheelchair and he pulls the twins’ double stroller.

On a recent day, Michelle dropped Derrick off for scuba diving therapy and then returned to the Fisher House lobby, all decorated for Christmas, lugging two babies bundled into bulky carriers.

As little Dennis let out a wail, Spc. Alex Miller, 22, whose family is living at Fisher House as his 2-year-old daughter undergoes cancer treatment, swooped in and cradled the infant boy in his arms calling him, “Mr. Studly.” Soon after, Miller’s wife, Amy, was feeding Trinity a bottle.

“We all know the military lifestyle, so we all help each other,” said Miller, who was stationed in Germany when the family learned of his daughter’s cancer.

The Fisher House where Miller lives is one of six in the Washington region and 43 nationally that provide free housing to military and veterans’ families who have someone being treated at a military or VA hospital. With more than 2,600 soldiers wounded in action in Iraq and Afghanistan this year, it’s a service that is in growing demand and there are waiting lists to get in.

Sixteen more such homes are under construction around the country or close to breaking ground. The Fisher House Foundation, established in 1993 by Zachary Fisher, a prominent New York real estate developer who died in 1999, builds them, donates them to the government, then pays for families to stay there.

Sometimes families arrive without even shampoo or a winter coat, after rushing to catch a flight upon learning that a loved one has been wounded. In a back room at the Fisher House at Walter Reed, tubs overflow with toiletries, diapers and baby wipes. Many of the supplies are donated.

“A lot of families come for spring or summer and they’re not thinking they’re going to be here for winter,” said Rebecca Skinner, assistant manager at the house.

Suddenly being thrown into life in Washington can be an adjustment for the families. Staff members field questions about nearby churches, local schools and the like.

Army Sgt. John Moore, 27, of White Bluff, Tenn., who had his leg amputated after a roadside bombing on Jan. 9, said he’ll happily leave the city’s traffic behind one day. As he recovers at Fisher House, his wife lives with their daughters, ages 4 and 6, in Tennessee so they don’t have to be pulled out of school.

“I’m from a small town. Everybody is nice to each other and they take their time,” said Moore, leaning on crutches outside the house’s large communal kitchen. “But D.C., it’s like, there aren’t very many nice drivers and it’s 100 miles per hour.”

The Fords met in 2007 when Derrick was stationed at Fort Drum, N.Y., following a 15-month deployment to Iraq. When she was seven months pregnant, Michelle drove from their home at Fort Lewis, Wash., to live with her family in Watkins Glen, N.Y., and await the twins’ birth. It was then that she learned her husband had been wounded, and she rushed to Washington to be close to him.

Michelle was staying in a suburban Washington hotel when she went into labor, and soon found herself alone and crying at National Naval Medical Center until her mother-in-law arrived to hold her hand. Derrick didn’t get there until after the babies did: He’d transferred to the naval hospital temporarily from Walter Reed to be near her.

It wasn’t long thereafter that Derrick made the anguishing decision to have the amputation in hopes he’ll be walking before the babies do.

Derrick’s left leg was amputated below the knee and his right foot was fit with a plate and 12 screws to the heel. He can’t put much weight on his prosthetic leg yet, but hopes to soon be walking and running. He says it’s possible he may be able to pass a medical board to remain in the Army, and if so, he’s open to the idea of remaining in the military.

When Michelle first learned of Fisher House, she was nervous about living in a house with other families. Since moving in, the Fords have been overwhelmed by the kindness of strangers who have donated clothing and diapers. They feel blessed to be in a house where everyone pitches in with baby-sitting and cooking.

Nibbling on a sandwich in the kitchen at Fisher House, Michelle recalled the September day her twins were born, and her husband was wheeled into her hospital room, as she held their new son. She said her husband cried when he saw Dennis for the first time. Then the two went together to see their daughter in the neonatal intensive care unit.

“He was very upset. He said, ‘I wanted to be there,’” Michelle said. “But it all worked out in the end.”


On the Net: Fisher House:

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