By Christopher Curry
Several generations of veterans gathered at the Malcom Randall VA Medical Center on Tuesday.
Catlin Mixson was among them.
In September 2007, Mixson was serving in Iraq when he lost his legs in an attack.
He recovered at an Army medical center in Texas for a time before returning to North Florida for outpatient rehabilitation at Malcom Randall VA.
He returned again Tuesday — part of a crowd in the range of 200 that gathered to mark the start of construction of the Gainesville Fisher House, a residential facility that will offer free lodging to family members of veterans who are admitted to the adjacent Medical Center with serious health issues.
"It's awesome," Mixson said. "It's not just about Iraq veterans or Afghanistan veterans. It's about Vietnam and Korea. We still have World War II veterans who are living, and their families cannot be going to a hotel."
The Fisher House project started about five years ago with a group of friends from the Rotary Club of Gainesville. Rick and Patti Fabiani and Connie Brower and her late husband, Roger, wanted to do something not just for veterans but their families.
After a little research, they discovered the national Fisher House Foundation, which raises money to build residential facilities for families next to major veterans medical centers across the country.
They set out to bring a Fisher House to Gainesville. Because the wheels of government tend to turn slowly, they found out it could take upwards of seven years to get a facility cleared by the Department of Veterans Affairs, Rick Fabiani recalled Tuesday.
Then, they got a little help from a friend — Jonathan Pruden with the nonprofit Wounded Warrior Project. A Gainesville resident, Pruden had his right leg amputated below the knee in 2005 — two years after he sustained serious injuries in a roadside bomb attack in Iraq.
He said he'd reach out to Tammy, his partner from rehabilitation. That Tammy turned out to be Tammy Underwood, who, at the time, was an assistant secretary for the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The local Fisher House swiftly received government approval. But the daunting task of fundraising remained ahead. Patti Fabiani, who runs the Gainesville Fisher House Foundation with her husband, said local efforts raised $1.8 million over four years. The national foundation will make a matching contribution, she said.
"The Tonight Show" host Jay Leno auctioned a tractor to make a $250,000 donation to the national organization's contribution, Patti Fabiani said.
Local donors large and small were in the audience for Tuesday's ceremony.
There were members of the Cade family. Relatives of the late University of Florida professor who invented Gatorade, they donated $1 million.
The local chapter of the Blue Knights, a law enforcement motorcycle group, was also there. They'd taken on the Fisher House as their charity project, member Jim Strauss said.
"I wish we could have done more," he said. "We gave them only one check. We couldn't give any more."
Patti Fabiani said construction should take 10 to 12 months. The end result will be a Fisher House of 20 suites — each with its own living room, dining room and kitchen.
"It's not a hotel; it's a home," Patti Fabiani said.
The foundation will give the house to the government as a gift, and the Department of Veterans Affairs will then be responsible for maintenance and operation.
Speaking at the event, U.S. Rep Cliff Stearns described the arrangement as an "exemplary example of a public-private partnership."
The foundation, meanwhile, will continue to raise money for the needs of families — everything from a once-a-week communal meal to a toothbrush someone might forget, Patti Fabiani said.
Since the first Fisher House opened in 1990, they have provided nearly 160,000 families with more than four million days of lodging, saving those families an estimated $192 million, according to the organization.
"They are truly safe havens for our patients and our families as they face complex medical issues," said Thomas Wisnieski, the director of the North Florida/South Georgia Veterans Health System.
Cindy Campbell, with the national Fisher House Foundation, estimated the Gainesville facility will house 300 to 400 families a year for "decades to come."
"That house is going to serve veterans who haven't even been born yet," she said.
Dick Lester, a Vietnam veteran and the commandant of the local Marine Corps League, said the facility has been needed for years.
"This going to be a lifesaver for a lot of veterans, especially someone that comes in with traumatic injuries" he said. "It's something that we should have had a long time ago."
"Holidays, birthdays & anniversaries have been celebrated with tears and smiles with people who truly understand what the other person is experiencing."
- Kamryn Jaroszewski