As chairman and CEO of Fisher House, Ken Fisher has heard from thousands of military and veteran families, all grateful for a free place to stay while loved ones receive medical care.
There’s one note, though, he cherishes most.
“It says, ‘Dear Ken’ – not Mr. Fisher, I don’t like that – ‘thank you for allowing me to spend Christmas with my son.’ That’s it.
“Can you imagine?” he says. “What would have happened if this program wasn’t there and these parents couldn’t afford a hotel? What if they couldn’t fly there because their government travel orders had already been used? They might have had to drive for a week and pay for gas, too.”
Fisher believes such families have sacrificed enough, especially since 9/11. Since taking over the foundation, he’s worked with DoD and VA to learn where needs are greatest, doubling the number of Fisher Houses to 64.
Zachary Fisher, a real estate developer and one of only two Americans to be named an honorary veteran, built the first two Fisher Houses in 1990. He died in 1999, but his family – chiefly Ken, his grandnephew – has expanded the Fisher legacy.
A senior partner at Fisher Brothers, Ken oversees the leasing, management and marketing of 5 million square feet of Class A commercial space in midtown Manhattan. He is co-chairman of the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum, and in 2007 he served on the President’s Commission on Care for America’s Returning Wounded Warriors.
This month he will speak at The American Legion’s national convention in Charlotte, N.C.
The American Legion Magazine spoke with Fisher about the charity’s growth at home and abroad, why the Fisher House program works, and its effort to cover military death benefits during last year’s partial government shutdown.
The Fisher House concept is 25 years old. How did its network of comfort homes begin?
The Fisher family’s involvement with the military and the philanthropy that we do started with USS Intrepid. It was brought to my uncle’s attention that after so many years of service the ship was essentially going to be sold as scrap metal. Zach found out and said it was a piece of history and should be preserved. So he worked with the Navy and a few well-connected people and was able to save it from the scrapheap. It was brought to New York around 1981 and became not only a centerpiece honoring the military but the catalyst behind the West Side revival.
A lot of big names were helping him, but Zach was the one who provided the seed money. It was his determination and drive that really made it possible. He wanted to do more for the military. So he made a phone call to Pauline Trost, who was married to Adm. Carlisle Trost, then the chief of naval operations. She would go to Bethesda from time to time to see troops in that hospital and noticed that families would come into the lobby with tons of luggage, no place to put it, no place to go. She told Zach that he should consider something along the lines of building housing for families to stay in if their loved ones are hospitalized. He thought that was an incredible idea and, in typical Zach Fisher form, reached into his pocket and built the first four Fisher Houses – first at Bethesda, shortly after that Walter Reed, the one at Brooke Army Medical Center and then one at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
Now, Zach had to work with the government in terms of how this was going to be done. But his only condition was that there had to be no charge. Then the need started to grow. Everybody wanted a Fisher House. It became like a badge of honor. So they formed the foundation, and it became the seed of the big tree that Fisher House is today.
With 64 houses now in operation, what goes into the decision to build a new one?
We don’t just build a house in a place just because we have the money. We work with the surgeons general, we work with VA. They tell us where they think the needs are going to be the greatest, and that’s where we go.
This was probably one of the first working partnerships between the government and the private sector. The government gives the land to us and we build the house using our skill set, which is construction and development. Zach built them, then donated them to whichever branch of the military they served. They in turn would agree to operate, staff and maintain the houses in perpetuity. Once the houses were done we were able to move on to the next project, the next community, the next need, and not have to worry about fundraising for the maintenance. It would have been a constant effort, and we wouldn’t have nearly the impact we have today.
We picked our lane using our skill set, took an unmet need and were able to engineer this partnership. In 21 years, our mission has not changed. One, we do what we do and we do it well. Two, we don’t waste money. We are not a foundation that tries to be all things to all people. There will be a few stray missions, but essentially that is it. Fisher House is beautiful in its simplicity.
How did 9/11 and the war on terror accelerate Fisher House’s work?
All of a sudden, Fisher House became a lot more relevant. We had the first casualties coming back from Afghanistan, and we knew we were going to have to ramp up our efforts. We’d already built a house in Landstuhl, so our first initiative after 9/11 was to build a second house because Germany was the first stopping point for the catastrophically wounded. Germany was also the first point for families to be reunited with their wounded if they could get there. The typical stay was just a couple of days and then, depending on the nature of the wound, they’d be flown back to the States and go to Walter Reed or Brooke or one of the Level 1 polytrauma centers around the country.
When I took over in 2003, the budget was a million dollars or something like that, and I said, “How on earth am I going to pay for all this?” We were already in the defense bill, but for a very small amount of money. We managed to stay there, but it’s never been commensurate with the kind of capital program we’ve undertaken.
Then the most amazing thing happened. Bits and pieces of the Fisher House story leaked out, and people embraced it. There was this wave of support for military foundations. Some were true to their missions and honored donations, and some did not. But there was such an outpouring of support. People just wanted to give.
The first interview I ever did on television was with Chris Matthews. We got about 15 minutes, which at that time was more than we’d ever gotten. And that really catapulted us into the public eye. But we were still one of the best-kept secrets in America. The reason why is that I didn’t feel I would ever have enough to be able to siphon money off to advertise. I didn’t do direct mail because that was very expensive and very wasteful. Advertising on television was just a dream. One, I couldn’t afford it; and two, even if I could, I don’t believe in spending a dollar to make a quarter. It’s completely contrary to the way I think as a businessman.
Even then, a very high percentage of the donated dollar went to the program. Today it’s 95 cents. But the one constant is that the money taken out for administrative costs can all be tracked, and only one penny goes toward self-promotion and fundraising. We’ve been able to capitalize a lot on word-of-mouth.
Cost savings aside, what else does a Fisher House stay offer a military or veteran family?
What really makes this program is the support system that forms inside the house, which has not changed in 21 years regardless of how big or small the house. The original houses were 5,000 feet; the houses we build today for VA can be as much as 16,000 square feet. They are designed to foster companionship. Each room has its own bathroom, its own TV, its own desk, its own bed. In that sense it’s like a hotel, but it’s not. It’s a home, because if you don’t feel like being alone, you walk downstairs, you cook dinner with another family, you do laundry with another family, you sit and decompress with another family. If you had a bad day, chances are there’s another family in the house that already had that day, and they coach you through it. If you have a good day, they’ll share your joy, because you’re like one big family. That’s the brick and mortar that holds the whole thing together.
Of the many families you’ve met, is there one encounter that’s stayed with you?
That’s a hard question to answer because every story is compelling. The first time my wife Tammy and I went to Walter Reed was in 2003, when (wounded troops) started coming back from Afghanistan. I got a call from the commander at Walter Reed, who said, “You should really come down here and see what you’re doing.” I said, “No, I don’t want to intrude on these families.” He said, “Don’t look at it at that way. You need to see what you’re doing,” and I said, “OK, but no cameras. This can’t be used for any kind of publicity for either of us.”
So Tammy and I went there, and some of their wounds were horrific. We saw a Special Forces sergeant, and his arm was pinned to his body with a halo. He was sitting on his bed, and I said, “Hey, how are you doing?” And he comes over, shakes my hand and says, “Thank you.” I said, “I’m here to thank you.” My wife and I, just about the same time, ran out of the room because we were crying.
All we were doing was building houses. But when you go down there and you see what you’re doing, man, it gets pretty heavy.
Two projects of which you’re especially proud are the Fisher Houses at Dover Air Force Base and Great Britain.
When we deviate, we deviate in a way that’s associated with the mission. Back in 2008, I got a phone call from the Army surgeon general. Was I aware of what was going on at Dover? He said that families come in at 4:30 in the morning to repatriate their loved ones’ remains – to basically welcome their loved ones home. After doing the unthinkable, they get in a car to drive five or six miles to a cheap hotel. So using a fund I keep as a sort of chairman’s prerogative fund, I built a Fisher House at Dover so that families – if they can get there to welcome their loved one home, they don’t get a lot of notice – can walk 50, 60 yards and not have to worry about traveling anywhere. We also built a nondenominational spiritual center so that if they want to pray or meditate, they walk out the front door and across a little street. We call it the Fisher House for the Families of the Fallen. I’m more proud of that than anything else because we did that house in about seven months.
The next project was a little bit outside the box. When the British military are wounded they get folded into the national health-care system; they don’t have a VA. Somebody who just hit an IED could be next to someone who just had their appendix out. They got together and said they’d like to be able to recover together the way the Americans do. The military talked to the government, and it decided to take a chunk of a new hospital being built in Birmingham and make a wounded warrior ward. It’s basically a military hospital within the hospital.
A friend of my wife’s came to the opening of the Los Angeles VA Fisher House and said, “Boy, wouldn’t it be great if we could have one of these in England?” I said, “Why not?” One of our goals at FH is to educate about the plight of the military family, and to me the British are just an extension of us. They didn’t pay the same price we did over there, but they did pay a price.
We worked with the hospital trust and what I’d call the mirror image of Fisher House in England, Help for Heroes. We split it three ways: the trust, Help for Heroes and us. Prince Charles came and dedicated the house. It was a big deal.
We actually had to amend our charter, which only allowed us to do this on American soil. The idea’s now global, but it highlights how lean and nimble we can be, that we were able to do this and never missed a beat in America.
Last October, Fisher House stepped in to cover troops’ death benefits during the government shutdown. What does that say about our government and politics today?
I saw the story on the news, like everybody else, and I said, “You’ve got to be kidding me. Now they’re playing games with the families of the fallen.” We’ve had government shutdowns before, but never like this. I called up the president of Fisher House, and I said, “We can’t allow this to happen. This is what we do. We have to fund this.”
During the shutdown there were five combat casualties, but it wasn’t five families who were suffering. There were 29 who had lost a loved one in uniform, whether it be by suicide, sickness, training accident or combat. They get $100,000 within the first 24 to 36 hours. Fisher House was prepared to fund $2,900,000 that day.
I’m not going to tell you I was appalled because the death benefits weren’t being paid. That was appalling enough. The House voted 435-0 to restore benefits, but when we heard the Senate might not vote because they were worried that certain members didn’t want piecemeal solutions – they wanted the whole ball of wax or nothing –
I was incensed. They’ve got Fisher House now, everybody’s satisfied that the death benefits are dealt with, everybody can go back to squabbling – that’s what got me. Yeah, I felt like a pawn. And I was. But if that’s being used, use me all day, because at least I got (the troops’) backs covered.
Describe Fisher House’s relationship with The American Legion.
The American Legion has been a great supporter, not just with the help it gives us, but with its input. As VSOs, we can change what happens when injustices have been done or are being done. If we all pull together, we can make the changes. We’re proud to even be mentioned in the same breath as The American Legion.
On the local level, volunteers are capital in the sense of time and help. If there’s a Fisher House in the area of an American Legion post, hopefully they’ll stop by and say hello. Check on my houses for me. Check on my families: “How are you guys doing? Do you need anything?” On the national level, we don’t ask for anything. We fundraise, of course, but we always let what we do be the deciding factor. If you like what you see, join us.
Are you satisfied that Fisher House has lived up to its founder’s vision?
How could it not have? The mission is so pure. Of course, Zach passed before 9/11, but I don’t think he ever would have imagined that Fisher House would become the gold standard. Those are not just my words. Building a house in Britain, getting involved in the government shutdown and doing what we did were right up his alley. If I could have him back for five minutes, I think all he would do is smile.
Matt Grills is managing editor of The American Legion Magazine.