As Memorial Day approaches, the families of past and present military service members are left to think about their loved ones.
But one U.S. nonprofit is thinking about America’s military families 365 days a year, especially in their darkest hours.
Fisher House Foundation, based in Rockville, Maryland, is on a mission to care for the loved ones of military service members who have been injured or perished in active service by providing free lodging across the nation.
Fisher House Foundation Chairman and CEO Ken Fisher shared in an interview with Fox News Digital how the network is made up of 94 Fisher Houses “and growing,” with the goal of reaching 100 houses within the next year.
Fisher House began in 1990 when it was brought to the attention of Ken Fisher’s uncle, Zachary Fisher, that there was a “very basic yet underappreciated need” for military families to find housing while their wounded loved ones received treatment.
“There were people sleeping in their cars,” he said. “People would come into the hospital lobby, drop their things and run upstairs without any thought of what would happen next.”
“It’s a very simple mission — but a very vital mission.”
New York City-based Fisher shared how his uncle used his background as a developer to bring the first Fisher House to life in Bethesda, Maryland.
“It’s a very simple story and it’s a simple mission,” he said. “But a very vital mission.”
Since its beginnings, the Foundation has attempted to “accommodate the growing need” by continuing to provide modernized “comfort home” stays for as long as the hospital stay dictates, Fisher said.
The Foundation has served nearly 455,000 guest families nationwide, saving nearly $500 million in travel and lodging. According to Fisher, the Foundation has offered more than 12 million days of free lodging.
He expressed how Fisher Houses receive families at the “absolute worst possible time” in their lives, so the goal is to provide not only a place to rest their heads, but also a support system.
“When families walk in, they can’t believe that they’re staying in this kind of environment,” Fisher said. “They expect a hotel-like environment that’s very cold.”
“They are embraced by the other families that are staying there,” he went on. “So each house becomes its own community, [which] forms a support system. And this support system is where the family healing starts.”
Fisher detailed how families have the option to shut their doors and have privacy as they would at a hotel, but they are also welcome to seek the company of other house members.
“They can come down and sit in any of our common areas, which are the lifeblood of the house, and can sit and decompress with the other families,” he said.
“This support system is where the family healing starts.”
“It’s become one big family within each house,” Fisher added. “And when [families] walk out, they quickly realize that they have been blessed by the fact that … other families had embraced them and taken care of them.”
As these efforts aim to keep the American spirit alive, Fisher said it also is a way to provide elevated care for military service members in a way that did not exist in the past.
“Some of our biggest supporters are Vietnam veterans and we can be there for them now,” he said. “Whereas during the Vietnam War, obviously, we weren’t there.”
“The American people have embraced Fisher House in a way that I’m not sure any one of us ever thought possible, especially after 9/11,” Fisher went on.
“But as the military-civilian divide started to widen, we made it one of our mission points to narrow that divide by bringing the plight of the military family to light.”
He emphasized how military families have “also made sacrifices and borne burdens” that the average American does not understand.
“Behind every man or woman who wears a uniform is a family,” Fisher said.
Fisher House families speak out
Gold Star mother Toni Gross was particularly impacted by the Fisher House Foundation after her son, U.S. Corporal Frank Gross, was killed while deployed in Afghanistan in 2011.
(Gold Star families are those who have lost a loved one in military service.)
Gross, of Tampa Bay, Florida, told Fox News Digital in an interview how her only son followed his family’s military heritage by enlisting in the Army in 2010. He was stationed in Fort Hood, Texas, before being deployed.
On July 16, 2011, Frank Gross rode in a vehicle with a few of his fellow soldiers to retrieve a disabled landmine sweeper on the southeastern border of Afghanistan.
The driver swerved to avoid what appeared to be a land mine in front of them, but instead hit an IED (an improvised explosive device). Her son was the only casualty from the event, Toni Gross relayed.
The Gross family was invited to attend the dignified transfer of Frank Gross at Dover Air Force Base in Dover, Delaware, where they were escorted to the Fisher House for Families of the Fallen.
“I’d never heard of Fisher House before. I had no idea,” she said.
“We walked through the doors and it [looked like] a beautiful five-star mansion resort.”
Gross shared that she and her family were “immediately” supported by military personnel and considered the house a “safe place.”
“It was the place where we stayed while we awaited Frank’s flag-draped casket to come back from Afghanistan,” she said. “It was so much better than staying at a hotel … It was a safe place, a quiet environment, a place for our family to grieve in a comfortable, peaceful surrounding.”
The Gold Star mother said she enjoyed many Fisher House amenities, including a fully stocked kitchen, an entertainment room with a TV and “beautifully appointed” bedrooms.
Fisher House also extended the invite to Toni Gross’ sister and brother-in-law, so they were all able to grieve and embark on the healing process together as a family.
“You don’t just stay at a Fisher House,” she said. “It is a place where friendships are forged, where healing begins … It’s a place of comfort.”
The Fisher House Foundation had such a profound impact on Gross that she decided to become a volunteer herself.
She has served at her local Fisher House at James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital in Tampa, Florida, for the last 10 years.
Gross considered her service to be “good medicine” that helps with her own healing.
“It’s part of my healing journey to be able to serve proudly at my Fisher House,” she said. “I could never repay what the Fisher House has done for me personally.”
The meaning of Memorial Day
The Fisher House Foundation was the first to provide a space for Gold Star families to stay while repatriating their lost loved ones, according to Fisher.
“As we come into Memorial Day, it’s so important for us to remember the sacrifices made by the 3,700 families that went through Dover, or the families that didn’t go through Dover that lost a loved one in battle, that lost a loved one while wearing a uniform,” he said.
Fisher said he regards Memorial Day as “one of America’s holy days,” not just a day to hit the beach or have a barbecue.
“It just accentuates the need for us to remember the sacrifices that are being made, not only by those in uniform but also by their families,” he said.
Gross emphasized how Memorial Day can be a “difficult day,” particularly for Gold Star families.
“Since I was handed the folded flag, Memorial Day has taken on a different meaning for me,” she said. “It will never be the same.”
“This is a difficult time for families of the fallen, but we do appreciate how our nation does embrace our military families,” Gross added.
As Fisher stated, “We really need to take time out and remember what has been done for our freedom. It’s that simple.”
For more information on how to get involved with Fisher House Foundation, visit fisherhouse.org.