- The Washington Times - Friday, November 28, 2008

SAN ANTONIO

Judith Markelz has relied on volunteers for years to help the war wounded and their families. They’ve brought meals, DVDs, event tickets and an endless supply of cookies to help comfort those whose lives suddenly were upended by a bomb or a bullet.

So when new volunteer Les Huffman arrived in January 2007 at the chaotic 1,000-square-foot room used for the Warrior and Family Support Center and asked what Miss Markelz needed, the program manager said a new video game system.

But Mr. Huffman, the president of a small commercial development firm, wanted to do more. When Miss Markelz conceded she could use a little more room, that’s what she got: a $5 million building funded by private donations and designed like a house, with a therapeutic garden, classroom, video game room and kitchen.

“I asked for an Xbox 360, and I got a 12,500-square-foot building,” she said with a laugh. “Nice trade-off.”

Miss Markelz gets the keys to the place at Fort Sam Houston on Monday. It will be the first center of its kind built on an Army post.

The original support center opened five years ago and was expected to offer a couple of activities a month and provide a place for the wounded so they wouldn’t stay in their cramped barracks all the time.

But as the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan dragged on, the number of severely wounded service members grew. Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam has the Army’s only burn unit and a large amputee rehabilitation program, meaning many of the wounded are there for the long haul.

Their family members, usually wives or mothers, often drop everything when they get the call that their spouse or child is wounded and arrive in San Antonio overwhelmed. They forget diapers for their infants, don’t have more than a couple changes of clothes and don’t have a way of getting around the city.

“I had a lady get off the plane with two left shoes,” Miss Markelz said. “When you get that phone call, rational is not what you are.”

After the immediate panic, the families have other needs. Sometimes, spouses need education or job skills, and they often need the diversion of crafts, meals and outings, Miss Markelz said.

The 59-year-old retired teacher and her three-member staff work with volunteers to provide all that in the overflowing conference room of a Fort Sam hotel. They’ve logged 264,000 visits from service members and their relatives in the past five years.

The new building will let the staff and families do things the cramped room didn’t allow.

Families will be able to cook in the large kitchen. A barbecue pavilion sits near a garden built for relaxation and therapy. A classroom will offer graduation equivalency diploma classes and other skills.

A high-end game room designed by some of the wounded servicemen will host video game tournaments and movie nights.

Cash donations to the Returning Heroes Home, the nonprofit that Huffman Developments set up for the project, were supplemented by subcontractors eager to give their time and by suppliers willing to give materials for free or at steep discounts.

“Whenever we’ve needed anything, things have just come together,” said Beverly Lamoureux, the Huffman Developments executive vice president who helped oversee the design and building of the new center.

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