WASHINGTON — There were plenty of times, Bridgit Fennell remembers, when new families checked into the guest house at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and inevitably asked her all the personal questions.
Was your husband in combat theater? What's his prognosis? Sometimes she chafed at having to answer them again and again.
But Fennell, whose husband Ken Fennell, a Navy Band saxophonist, died on Christmas Eve from brain cancer, prefers to recall the moments of kinship: the girlfriend her teenage son met at Fisher House. Or the time she prayed with a Tennessee family after their son died from wounds in Afghanistan.
"We looked in each other's eyes, and we all cried," recalled Fennell, whose Maryland family has stayed at the Walter Reed-based group house for nearly a year and is checking out this month. "We were meant to be together for that moment."
These are the little-seen glimpses of life at the nation's Fisher Houses, group homes at every big military medical campus, as well as two by Ramstein Air Base in Germany. The Fisher Houses offer free lodging to members of the military, veterans, and their relatives, who need treatment at the nearby military or Veterans Affairs hospital.
The fallout of two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has fueled a Fisher House building boom. In 2010, ten houses opened. In 2012, four more were launched, including one at Fort Belvoir in Virginia. Another four will come in 2013, in Florida, Tennessee and Texas, and in Birmingham, England.
Operated by the VA or the military, the 58 Fisher Houses in the United States and Germany are built by the Fisher House Foundation, a Rockville, Md.-based nonprofit. Named after late founder Zachary Fisher and his wife, Elizabeth, who made their fortune in real estate, the Fisher Houses first opened in 1991 at the old Walter Reed Army Medical Center in the District of Columbia and what was then the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.