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.
The Fisher House Foundation mostly relies on donations from the Fisher Brothers real estate firm, along with Defense Department funds and money from private individuals. (President Barack Obama recently reported that his family in 2011 donated $117,130 to the Fisher House Foundation.)
The Fisher Houses range in size, from eight- to 21-suite buildings. They boast flat-screen televisions in the rooms and granite kitchen countertops, and are decorated with elegant, framed artwork.
But the Fisher Houses, which have served more than 160,000 families since their inception, do not work like the Four Seasons. Guests, who stay an average of 10 days, buy and cook their own food and eat in a communal dining room. They take out the trash. They wash their own clothes.
The lack of privacy poses challenges: How can several families — already dealing with a relative's amputations or cancer treatment — get along under one roof without conflict or compounding each other's sadnesses?
"There were definitely a few times when people have come in late, they want to unload their story, I've already been at the hospital for 10 hours," said Fennell, who stayed at Fisher House with her two children for an entire year. "And some woman says, 'My son's come back from overseas. Was your husband in theater?'
"I wasn't open always to making them feel better. I didn't want it to be at the expense of my husband, who was dying, while their son was going to live."
Joseph Krebs, 80, a former Marine staying at the Fisher House at the District of Columbia's VA Medical Center while being treated for a blood disorder, grapples with how much he should inquire into other guests' private lives.
"This past week, three veterans passed away, and their relatives were at the Fisher House," Krebs recalled recently. "I gave one of the relatives a hug. I assured her that her husband was at peace. I share my problems but not to any depth. I don't want to invade others' privacy and pry into their personal hardships."
"My blood disorder is not terminal," said Krebs, a Korean War veteran who expects to check out of Fisher House in mid-January. But he knows others will leave without their loved ones.
Sometimes, individual managers of Fisher Houses act not only as innkeepers but as social workers.
Kenneth Merritt, a retired Army master sergeant who manages the Fisher House next to the District of Columbia's VA Medical Center, demurred when asked if he felt he helped families cope in deep, emotional ways.
"I'm just a person who wants to make sure people here are comfortable," Merritt said.
Sitting nearby, Krebs objected. "He's modest," Krebs said. "People bring their problems to him."
But much more frequently, the guests rely on each other. They form friendships that outlive their Fisher House stays.
When Bridgit Fennell first met Eve Poole in April 2012 at the Fisher House at Walter Reed, the two women did not click. Fennell gave Poole an earful when she saw her cleaning dishes in the house kitchen by hand, and not using the dishwasher. Poole thought Fennell was too high-strung.
But as the months wore on, Poole listened to Fennell grieve about her husband Ken's cancer and the stressful navigation of military health-care system. Fennell supported Poole as her husband, Alfred Poole, 52, an active-duty Army liaison, dealt with a cascade of medical issues and memory loss.
And they figured out ways to turn misery into moments of amusement.
"At one point, Mr. Poole and my husband had walkers. And once they raced around the kitchen island in them," Fennell said, standing in the same kitchen, eyeing that island. "Ken had an '18-wheeler,' and Mr. Poole had these little training wheels. We laughed so hard, it didn't matter."
In late November, the Pooles left the region so Alfred could get treated at Massachusetts General Hospital. But before the Pooles left, the two women made a pact to share their grief if one of their husbands died.
On Christmas Eve, Poole got a text from Fennell. Ken just died, Bridgit said. He was 52.
After Bridgit sent the text, the two women talked on the phone.
"Bridgit said she had just gotten back from the hospital and went to the Fisher House. And she knocked on our old door, Room 106, to let me know," Poole recalled. "And then she realized we were no longer there. She almost cried. She was like, 'I am lost.' "