Wounded soldiers, relatives find free respite

At Fisher House, soldiers and their relatives find free respite

Staff WriterDecember 23, 2010 

  • Fisher House has a Christmas wish list of items that manager Paula Gallero says would help make families and soldiers more comfortable:

    Gift cards for discount or grocery stores

    Travel-size toiletry items

    Laundry supplies

    Trash bags

    Paper plates, cups and plastic flatware

    Baby food, individual coffee creamer and sweetener

    Condiments, canned goods, milk, cheese, butter

    Video games, DVDs, electronics

— Matt Leonard suffers from a brain injury, has night terrors and sometimes can barely walk because of blast damage to his left leg. Doctors tell him he'll be picking shrapnel out of his face and appendages for 10 years.

As Leonard gets treatment for his service-related injuries at Womack Army Medical Center at Fort Bragg, the last headache he needs is worrying about how to pay for a hotel so his wife and sons can be close by.

"That's why we're here," said Paula Gallero, who has run Fisher House at Fort Bragg since it opened in 1993. "So the soldiers and their families can focus on other things."

The Leonards will be staying at Fisher House through the Christmas holidays and beyond.

It's not home, but with a fresh Christmas tree in the living room, a full kitchen, laundry facilities and plenty of windows, it's the next-best thing.

The seven-bedroom house was designed to provide free, temporary housing to families of soldiers undergoing treatment at Womack. It also has served families awaiting the return of the bodies of loved ones killed overseas.

One of 53 Fisher House facilities near military and VA hospitals across the nation, this one helps about 300 families each year. It has elements of an elegant country inn, a well-kept college dorm and the home of a gracious relative who doesn't mind if sleepless guests get up to bake gingerbread at 2 a.m.

At the holidays, especially, the house offers a welcome sense of normalcy to couples whose lives have been transformed by injury or illness, surgical procedures, doctor appointments and therapy sessions. Hours each week are spent just filling out paperwork.

Upended by an accident

The life Matt Leonard liked best was built around his job as a paratrooper. Coming from a military family, the Salisbury native loved the Army's rigor and routine from the time he joined in 2001. But a 2004 training accident, in which his chute malfunctioned, left him with a head injury that prompted the military to discharge him on medical grounds.

Leonard fought for four years to get back in, finally doing so with a congressional waiver, a reduction in rank and a prohibition on jumping out of planes. He went to New Mexico for training and was assigned to an infantry regiment at Fort Drum, N.Y.

Eager to do the job for which he was trained, Leonard was happy to be deployed to Afghanistan in March. That's where he was just before sundown on Oct. 30, with the 1st Brigade Combat Team of the 10th Mountain Division, when his group of five vehicles was ambushed.

They were about a mile from base, Leonard said, when a blinding light flashed and his truck stopped moving. As he turned around to try to help his team leader, in the seat behind him, the truck was hit by a series of rocket-launched grenades. Leonard remembers a sensation of being pushed to the right; he later learned that the blast sent him flying more than 10 yards from the truck.

Leonard's radial artery had been sliced. He had nearly lost an ear. There was almost no muscle left on the lower half of his left leg.

When he got a chance to call his father, he told him, "I got blown up."

With the severity of his injuries, Leonard had only a few choices of military hospitals where he could go for treatment. Womack was the closest to his relatives in Salisbury and his wife's in Lexington. He arrived at Womack on Nov. 6.

His wife, Jennifer, came from Lexington, leaving the couple's young boys with their grandparents. She slept in a chair in his room for nearly a month so she could help with whatever he needed. After doctors told him walking could help him rebuild, Jennifer would help Matt load his medical machinery into a wheelchair, push it outside, and walk the parking lot with him for hours.

Weekends, she would get the boys - Steven, 6, and Lance, nearly 2 - and rent a motel room where they could visit with their father.

But like many spouses, Jennifer had taken a leave from her job, then quit to care for Matt. Money was tight. When she heard about Fisher House, she called officers there to see if they could help.

The room they gave her enabled Jennifer to have Lance with her full time and Steven when he's not in school. When Matt was discharged from the hospital and joined them at Fisher House, being with his family seemed almost as therapeutic as all the bottles of medicine he has trouble keeping straight.

A benefactor built it

Construction of Fisher Houses, down to the furnishing of bed linens, is funded by the Fisher House Foundation. The houses become the property of the military, which runs and maintains them with paid managers and volunteers. They rely on donations from the community for everything from snacks for the pantry to Christmas decorations.

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq changed the way Fisher Houses are used; demand skyrocketed, the average age of the families dropped and the length of stay increased. Gradually, soldiers themselves began to stay in the houses while getting intensive outpatient care.

Fort Bragg's Fisher House, built as a two-story home, is scheduled to be replaced next year by a larger, single-story home more accessible to amputees and patients with leg injuries.

The Leonards hope to be gone by then. Matt has asked to be transferred from Fort Drum to Fort Bragg and given another assignment.

"There are, like, 186 jobs in the Army," Matt Leonard said. "I'm pretty sure there's something I could do."

If that's approved, the family will settle in the area. Someone else will move into their Fisher House room.

"This has been 100 times better than staying in the hospital," Matt Leonard said.

"It's just like my own house," said his wife. "Except bigger, and more people in it."

martha.quillin@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8989

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