- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 31, 2009

Army Maj. Andrew John “A.J.” Tong, 33, of Yelm, Washington, is one of the more than 7,500 veterans who answers the roll call of those served by the Fisher House Foundation.

Beginning as a philanthropic outgrowth of Zachary and Elizabeth Fisher’s New York real estate company, Fisher Brothers, the first Fisher House was opened at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda on June 24, 1991 to support veterans and their families as a “home away from home” at no cost while receiving specialized medical care at a military hospital.

Walter Reed Army Medical Center in the nation’s capital soon opened the second Fisher House months later. The nonprofit organization has since opened at least one Fisher House at major military medical centers across 15 states and the District, as well as the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany.

Enlisting in 1993 at 17, Maj. Tong earned his commission as a first lieutenant following graduation from Washington State University in 1999. Maj. Tong had two weeks remaining on his 15-month deployment when, on a return mission to Baghdad with the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, his vehicle was hit with a roadside bomb on Aug. 18, 2007.

“I was evacuated out of the theater with nothing more than a sheet over me,” Maj. Tong recalled.

While undergoing rehabilitation at Fort Sam Houston’s Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Maj. Tong was first introduced to Fisher House.

“Because I was an officer I could not stay in the barracks. I received an outpatient discharge and needed something close,” said Maj. Tong. Along with his recently retired mother, he stayed at Fisher House for nearly nine months.

After undergoing multiple surgeries, Maj. Tong now has a below-the-knee prosthetic on his right leg and is going through the medical review board process at Madigan Army Medical Center in Fort Lewis, Washington, to either stay on active-duty or be honorably discharged.

Walter Reed Army Medical Center is scheduled for closure in 2011 due to the 2005 Base Relocation and Closure (BRAC), includes two Fisher Houses on campus that will be removed from the Department of Defense’s inventory.

To compensate for this loss, the National Naval Medical Center at Bethesda is undergoing an expansion and will become the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. The two Fisher Houses at the Bethesda location, which accommodate 15 families, do not have the capacity to meet current needs, much less the expanded transient family lodging requirements, according to Derek Donovan, vice president for operations of the Rockville, Md.-based Fisher House Foundation.

Consequently, the Fisher House Foundation - www.fisherhouse.org - is taking on its largest commitment ever by building three additional Fisher Houses at the expanded Bethesda campus. These houses will have an increased capacity to accommodate 60 more families.

Already the biggest expansion in Fisher House Foundation history, it will also be the organization’s costliest, at an estimated $19.5 million.

The Fisher House Foundation is increasing its resources in an effort to meet the new demand across the country with plans to open additional houses in Chicago, Boston and St. Louis in 2010.

Mr. Donovan said the Washington, D.C., area, which has always had the greatest need for family lodging and been significantly underserved, will continue to see causalities coming to area military medical centers during the next year.

“Our taxpayers don’t take care of everything,” Maj. Tong said. “Fisher House puts back every dollar they take in.”

Maj. Tong was the impetus for his undergraduate fraternity, Kappa Sigma, mobilizing its 260 chapters last year to raise $1.3 million to aid the construction of a Fisher House on the campus of the Veterans Affairs Hospital in the District. Preparation recently began on a 20-suite design.

“Over 90 percent of Fisher House’s funds are directed toward bona fide Veterans’ programs,” said Daniel Borochoff, president of the American Institute of Philanthropy. He testified before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform’s hearing on veterans’ charities in December 2007 about failures of a dozen national veterans-based organizations to direct funds toward veterans needs.

“Outside of the D.C. media, outside of the Beltway, the issue is not well known,” Mr. Borochoff said. “Many of these veterans-specific organizations are wasting donor’s money. Fisher House has consistently received an A-plus from us and is known in the philanthropic community for their excellence in serving our veterans.”

• John Muller is a writer and photographer living in Montgomery County.

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