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 incurred 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, 10 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 Department of Veterans Affairs or the military, the 58 Fisher Houses in the United States and Germany are built by the Fisher House Foundation, a Rockville-based nonprofit organization. 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 and what was then the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda.
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 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?’