How One Foundation Helped Heal My Family After 9/11

A statue depicts Zachary and Elizabeth Fisher, the couple who first started the Fisher House Foundation.
U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Jessica Kuhn

I was in the locker room changing out of gym clothes when I learned about the attacks on Sept. 11. It was my second week of high school.

As a school in the Washington, D.C., suburbs, many of its students had parents working at the Pentagon or in the city. I was no exception. My father worked out of the Pentagon every day and my mother split her time between the Pentagon and a nearby office.

All of my teachers let me take time from class to try to contact my parents, but with so many people attempting to do the same, the lines were jammed. This was before cellphones were as ubiquitous as they are today so my friends and I spent the bulk of the school day trying to get in touch with our families between classes.

I couldn’t get in touch with either parent. In hindsight I think a part of me knew something wasn’t right, but I didn’t panic.

I calmly rode the bus home as usual. I kept calling every few minutes — my mother’s office, my father’s office and my father’s cell phone. No answer. And then I just sat in my family room and waited. To this day I couldn’t tell you how long this went on, but a little while later the doorbell rang.

It was a family friend and her husband. She had served in the Army with my mother. Since the phone lines were jammed, she was the only one my mother could connect with. She came to pick me up and let me know my mother was alright, but my father had been hurt and was in the hospital. I had no idea what type of injuries came from being in an office hit by an airplane, but I knew it had to be serious.

While my father recovered from the severe wounds he sustained, my mom, sister and I were welcomed to the Fisher House family.

The resilience of military families is widely known, but during times of need, when loved ones are injured or ill, Fisher House Foundation seeks to lessen the burden. The foundation provides a network of comfort homes where military and veterans’ families can stay at no cost while a loved one receives treatment.

Returning to a house instead of an empty hotel room does immeasurable help for those with loved ones recuperating. Fisher Houses provide a home away from home. It offers a private room for families to comfortably recharge while their family members undergo surgeries and rehabilitation as well as common spaces where guests can enjoy each other’s company.

My mother found out about Fisher House by pure coincidence. On the night of Sept. 11, she was waiting on the platform at a Metro station as she made her way home from seeing my father at the hospital. Given the day’s events, the station was rather empty so she and another woman began chatting as they waited for their train, simply reflecting on the day.

Once the woman learned that my father was among the injured, she told my mother she worked at nearby Walter Reed. She asked my mother what she was going to do and where we were going to stay. My mother explained that she was just trying to get home to me so she could get us back to the hospital. There was no plan yet; we were just focused on packing an overnight bag and seeing my father. The woman was kind enough to take my mother’s information down.

The next morning my mother and I each packed a bag to bring to the hospital. As we were on our way out the door, the phone rang. It was the woman from Metro. She had spoken to the director of the Fisher House at Walter Reed. She told us we had a place to stay for as long as we needed it; all we had to do was check in.

During our three-month stay we didn’t have to worry about a thing except my father’s recovery. We stayed at no cost and enjoyed a fully stocked kitchen and home-cooked meals. Not having to order take out or fast food may seem simple, but when your loved one is facing multiple surgeries a week and you’re spending seemingly endless days at the hospital, the small touch goes a long way. More than anything though my family and I enjoyed the company of other military families at Fisher House.

My strongest memories from this time involve the kitchen and conversations with other guests. The progress and major milestones our family members achieved were of course constant topics of discussion. However, rather than focusing on the medical details that dominated our days at the hospital, we would talk about simple things back at the house. We’d chat about what new treats someone had made, what new guests had arrived, or where we were from.

I’ve always been shy (and the circumstances leading to our stay at Fisher House weren’t exactly ones to lead me out of my shell), but simply having other families nearby provided comfort and relief from the monotony of hospital waiting rooms. More than anything, this sense of community made the biggest difference during that difficult time.

Fisher House welcomes retirees as well as active-duty families, so the circumstances surrounding families’ stays varied from treatment for illnesses to more sudden injuries. All were united in needing a longer-term place to stay while their loved ones healed.

My family and I only lived about 30 minutes away from the hospital where my father was being treated, but we encountered family members from across the country at Fisher House. Imagine these families having their lives rocked by the injury of a loved one, and then traveling to a foreign city where they know no one as their loved one recovers. The value of the support provided by Fisher House becomes all the more apparent.

Fisher House Foundation provides family members who have spouses, children, siblings and parents healing at nearby major military and VA medical centers a safe space to comfort each other, check in on the progress of one another's loved ones and simply relax.

Many of the people we met at Fisher House in 2001 had family members arriving from Afghanistan for treatment at Walter Reed. There was a unique — albeit ironic — camaraderie that came from meeting families of service members sent to war in response to the very terrorist attacks that sent my father to the hospital.

When I moved back to the Washington, D.C., area after finishing graduate school, one of the first things I did was research races in the area. I’ve loved to run since high school, so I was eager to return to familiar trails.

I learned about the Marine Corps Marathon 10K, but saw that it had already sold out. I did a little digging and learned that one way to earn a spot was to fundraise with one of the partner organizations. Enter Team Team Fisher House, Fisher House’s fundraising team.

I didn't even know the team existed as a way to give back to an organization that had done so much for me and my family. The team is led by two military spouses, Stacy Toner and Cathy Cabrey, who work tirelessly to support the fundraising and training efforts of Team Fisher House runners.

This year I ran my fourth race with Team Fisher House. It was just as exciting to check in with Stacy at the pre-race expo as it was before my first race in 2012. Beyond the assistance leading up to the races, Team Fisher House recruits volunteers who eagerly line the race course cheering runners on. It’s truly inspiring to see the level of support fundraisers and donors alike devote to Fisher House.

To date, Fisher House Foundation has served 250,000 families and Team Fisher House has raised more than $6 million for the foundation. While impressive, these numbers only tell part of the story. The true significance is immeasurable; it’s in the comfort provided to military families when they need it most.

Running for Team Fisher House is just one small way for me to thank those who work tirelessly to take care of our military families. I’m certain my family would have gotten through my father’s recovery just fine without Fisher House, but I can’t for one second imagine what that would have looked like.

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