Your silent tents of green
We deck with fragrant flowers
Yours has the suffering been,
The memory shall be ours.
– Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
On this Memorial Day, it has been 16 years and counting since the United States has been at war. Since 9/11, 6,959 Americans have paid the ultimate sacrifice in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nearly 53,000 have been wounded.
I was serving in Okinawa when the Twin Towers were attacked. It wouldn’t be until 2006 that I would finally get to the front lines, as part of a U.S. Marine Corps battalion training team in Iraq.
Well before that deployment, I mourned the loss of a former leader, mentor, and above all, true American patriot. His name Jay T. Aubin. Originally an enlisted Marine, Jay was later a commisioned officer whose final rank was major. He didn’t live to see that promotion, however. A CH-46 pilot, his plane crashed during the initial 2003 Iraq invasion due to an unforgiving sandstorm and smoke from the oil fires set by Saddam Hussein’s loyalists.
Jay was the embodiment of everything I value in a leader. Humbleness and empathy were his enduring traits. That’s how he garnered the respect and admiration of both superiors and subordinates. Not with bluster. With humility. I was a truly green Marine when I met him. His passion and work ethic will forever influence me. His loss was hard to take, and I will never forget him.
The death of Maj. Aubin left an agonizing sense of the loss I know his family felt. The sinking feeling deep in my gut when thinking of his wife and two young children was immediate. His loss and the burden borne by them have stayed with me throughout my military career and to this day, a day of remembrance.
All of the other 7,000 Americans killed in these two wars also left behind family members who grieve for them every day. So this Memorial Day, I reflect on not just on our comrades who made the ultimate sacrifice since our nation’s founding (and the first decoration day commemorating those lost during the Civil War), but the families and communities that have shared in that price.
For this reason, I would like to pay homage to an organization founded to help meet the needs of the families of our fallen and wounded. The Fischer House Foundation, created by Zachary and Elizabeth Fischer in Bethesda, Md., sought to fill a gap in service to our nation’s veterans – the families of our servicemen and women.
The Fischers built the first house in June 1990 at what is now called the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, providing housing free of charge to the families of wounded servicemembers during treatment and rehabilitation. Some 300,000 family members have benefited from this service and I know many of them personally. From them, I have heard nothing but grateful praise.
An addition to serving families of the wounded, at the behest of the Surgeon General of the Army, the program was broadened to providing a place to stay for Gold Star families attending dignified transfer services in Dover, Del., instead of renting a hotel room miles away. The success of this home also led to the creation of a spiritual center, built to provide a place of worship for families of all denominations to pray and aid in their healing process.
Since the foundation’s inception, 78 homes have been constructed across this country and around the world, along with one in Birmingham, England. Serving over 11,000 veterans’ family members just this past year, the foundation is estimated to have saved them $407 million, or otherwise provided services to families that they could never have afforded.
Zachary and Elizabeth’s nephew Ken Fischer, the foundation’s CEO, has gone to great lengths to extend the program to include “Hero Hotels,” with participating hotels providing rooms for families through donated credit card points.
Given a 100 percent rating by Charity Watch, the Fischer House Foundation ranks as one of the top charities serving veterans and their families. The Center for Public Integrity lists the foundation at No. 6 in terms of funds raised and the percentage of money going directly to servicemembers, veterans and Gold Star families.
So on this Memorial Day, rather than simply thanking a veteran, please reach out and engage with them about their experiences. Veterans appreciate when someone takes a personal interest in them.
Alternatively, contribute your time, rewards points, or money to organizations such as the Fischer House Foundation, where you can see the immediate impact of your contribution.