Ben Mace|Delaware News Journal
At the height of the war in Afghanistan,Toni and Craig Gross traveled from their home in Floridato watchtheir son's casket carried off a plane at Dover Air Force Base.
Army Cpl. Frank Grosswas killed in action on July 16, 2011. He was 25.
As difficult as the trip was, the last thing they wanted to do was facea smiling hotel clerk saying, “Enjoy your stay,” or a waitress saying, “Have a nice day.”
They didn't have to.
Since 2010, Fisher House has provided a private sanctuary for more than 3,700 families as they await the return of fallen service members. It's a mission supportedby volunteers, donors and service members to providefree lodging, meals and support for families whose loved ones have been killed or injured in the service of their country.
“Fisher House took the burden of being in the public away from us,” said Craig. “We didn’t have to think about if people were staring at us. We could grieve. They knew what we were going through. Being at Fisher House actually began our healing process.”
Most U.S. military service members who are killedare flown to the DAFBmortuary to beprepared for burial. From 2009 to 2014, there were more than 2,400 dignified transfer ceremonies at the base, some involving multiple service members.
“We had no idea what Fisher House was,” said Craig. “Right when we walked in, it was comforting. The airmen made us feel right at home. Right across the street, there was a chapel. They gave us prayer quilts, something to hold onto.”
Toni said the house was "a sanctuary for grieving families like ours."
They arrived at the house inthe evening and met with an officer who would guide them through the process.
“I remember the solitude, the quietness,” said Craig. “Then we heard the plane come in.”
After the ceremony, they spent the rest of the night at the Fisher House and part of the next day.
“I don’t know how we could have made it through without Fisher House,” said Toni.
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Their son earned a master’s degree from Full Sail University in Winter Park, Florida but felt the pull of the military over civilian life. Both of his grandfathers had served in the armed forces.
“Frankie loved the discipline the military offered and wanted to make it a career,” said Toni. “When Frankie did something, he did it with passion. He was going to do it to the best of his ability.”
As Memorial Day approaches, Craig and Toni said Fisher House is one of the best examples of remembering service members and the families of service members who have been killed or injured.
“The people at Fisher House understand something that a lot of Americans don’t – the pain and grief families go through. It’s just phenomenal what they do,” said Craig. “A lot people need to know Fisher House is there. They need to know their support is needed as well. It’s nonprofit. It’s one of those hidden gems.”
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A duty to serve Gold Star families
Ken Fisher, the chairman and CEO of the Fisher House Foundation, said the nonprofit was started in 1990 by his great uncle, the lateZachary Fisher.
Because of a leg injury, his great unclecouldn't join the armed forcesin World War II, so heusedhis building skills to help the U.S. Coastal Service construct coastal fortifications. After he and his brothers formed Fisher Brothers buildersin New York, his support of the Armed Forces became an ongoing effort. In 1978, he founded amuseumto save the aircraft carrier Intrepid from the scrap yard, which led to the opening of theIntrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum.
When his great uncle learned that families of military service members injured in battle had to pay to stay in a hotelwhile visiting their loved one in a hospital– or couldn’t afford to visit at all– he decided to build homes near the hospitals to host those families.
The first Fisher House was built in Bethesda, Maryland, near what is now Walter Reed Medical Center. Todaythere are 92 Fisher Houses with plans to finish eight more by the end of 2023.
The homes have served more than 430,000 families, saving an estimated $521 million in travel and lodging expenses.
But the Dover Fisher House is unique. It's the only one supporting a mortuaryandwas the project the foundation finished the fastest.
“When we found out that there was not a place for the families to stay during the dignified transfers, we mobilized as quickly as possible,” said Fisher. “We broke ground on Memorial Dayand by Veterans Day, we were finished. We could not allow another Gold Star family to go through what they have to go through and then get in a car and drive to a motel.”
He said the Fisher House staff and volunteers can be much better caregivers than at any hotel, while the families offer each other help.
“Too often, we have more than one family staying there, but they can share their grief with another family who knows what they’re going through,” Fishersaid.
Often families will cook a meal together, eat together and pray together.
He said Fisher House is part of a promise that the United States should always fulfill.
“When a man or woman takes the oath to go into the military, as a country we also have to take an oath to take care of them if they come back wounded and take care of their families if they don’t come back,” he said.
'A safe place for us'
The staff and military personnel who serve at each house are “the lifeblood of the program,” said Fisher. “They make the houses into homes. I think they are as devoted to the mission as the people who work with me at the foundation. They’re part of an extended family.”
At Dover Air Force Base, the leader of that family is Master Sgt. Kayla Hemmesch, Fisher House section chief and house manager since December 2020.
Earlier in her 16-year career, she worked at the DAFB mortuary. Several years later she was assigned to Fisher House as one of the deployed members on the staff for about six months.
“I got to experience how we care for families, and I knew it was something I wanted to do,” said Hemmesch. “I had a passion for being able to take care of these families during one of the hardest moments of their lives.”
When she returned from a deployment inAfghanistan in 2020, she found out the Fisher House manager’s position was open in Dover, applied and was assigned to the job.
The staff supplies “pretty much anything the family needs,” said Hemmesch. “Fisher House provides a sanctuary and a safe haven. We just make sure they’re as comfortable as possible.”
Tarah McLaughlin stayed at the DoverFisher House after her husband, SSG Ian Paul McLaughlin, was killed in Afghanistan on Jan. 11, 2020, when their children were ages 3, 2 and 9 months.
“Within hours our life changed, and we were being pulled in a million directions,” McLaughlin said. “As you can imagine, traveling with three children for the first time and the anxiety and the grief of losing my husband took a toll on my mental state. Needless to say, we were exhausted when we arrived at the Fisher House at Dover. My children were cranky, off their scheduleand confused on what was going on, but the Fisher House felt like a safe place for us.”
Although she forgot to pack a toothbrush for herselfand other basics for her kids, “when I walked into our room there weretoys ready for my children, a Pack ‘n Play filled with blankets for my infant and an array of baby bathtubs, soaps, towels, potty seats and so much more,” she said.
“Within seconds of settling into our room, it was the first time since losing my husband that I felt safe and secure,” said McLaughlin. “The accommodations and the people at the Fisher House made me feel at home in probably one of the darkest times of my life.”
For the families’ privacy and security, no volunteers work in the house, but the house is part of a complex which includes gardens, a patio, the meditation building and the Center for the Families of the Fallen.
Chaplains are available at the meditation building. The Center for the Families of Fallen has volunteers who will help if asked, such as watching children while parents attend the dignified transfer ceremony.
Sometimes a family asks for meals to be provided, and sometimes theywantto cook for themselves.
The staff, working with the USO of Delaware, provides meals, groceries and supplies.
A family usually stays for one or two days, but Hemmesch said the staff has to be ready every day,running through a checklist.
She said families have expressed thanks and gratitude, but two gestures have stuck with her most.
A young girl created a picture for the staff of a rainbow using Froot Loops cereal, clouds from candy, and Hershey Kisses spelling out “Fisher House,” and wrote a thank-you note.
Another time, a college-age daughter said staying at Fisher House was the first time she’d seen her mother eat and rest since her son was killed in action.
“The fact that we could provide that – it’s hard to explain – but the fact that we were able to help in any way possible, that’s what makes me do what I do,” said Hemmesch.
Finding comfort by giving back
Several months after the ceremony at Dover Air Force Base and their son’s burial at Arlington National Cemetery, Craigand Toni Gross found comfort and a way to honor their son at another Fisher House next to a veterans hospital in Tampa, Florida, near their home.
Toni started helping in 2012 and has completed almost 2,000 volunteer hours. She goes to the house almost every Wednesday and bakes cookies or brownies.
Craig, who started Frankie’s Patriot BBQ, would take meals from the restaurant to the houseusually once a month.
They don’t volunteer information about their own background unless someone asks.
“Sometimes families open up to me, but I respect their wishes,” said Toni. “I’m here to serve them. I don’t tell them who I am but I wear my Gold Star pin,” which symbolizes the loss of a loved one in military service.
She’s witnessed how the house helps families and the military service members who have been receiving treatment at the hospital.
“Now our son’s legacy lives on through Craig and me, especially through Fisher House.”
How to help
To donate to the Fisher House Foundation, see the website fisherhouse.org or mail donations to Fisher House Foundation, PO Box 791598, Baltimore, MD 21279. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org call 1-301-294-8560.
To donate directly to the Dover Air Force Base Fisher House, send checks to DAFB Fisher House, 116 Purple Heart Drive, DAFB, DE 19902. Donors can also give to USO Delaware and Friends of the Fallen which support the house.
Reach reporter Ben Mace at email@example.com.