WASHINGTON -- Through the goodwill and generosity of thousands of people with unused frequent flyer miles and U.S. airlines, the Fisher House Foundation has given out nearly 3,000 free airline tickets to war-wounded service members and their families since the giveaway program started in January 2004.
About one-third - some 1,000 tickets -- have been given away during the first four months of this year. And the number is constantly growing.
Through its partnership with the Operation Hero Miles program, Fisher House has given away more than 100 million donated frequent flyer miles to bring families and loved ones to the bedsides of wounded combatants, said Jim Weiskopf, Fisher House vice president for communications.
Operation Hero Miles was created in 2004 by U.S. airlines with the help of Maryland Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger to provide free round-trip tickets donated by the American public to the almost 500 soldiers arriving each day from Iraq on rest and recuperation leave.
People eligible for free tickets fall into two categories:
Wounded servicemen and women from Iraq and Afghanistan with an approved convalescent leave may be given a free round-trip airline ticket for a trip from the military or Veterans Affairs medical center where they're being treated to their home and return if they're not eligible for government-funded airfare.
Qualifying servicemen and women may be given free round-trip tickets to enable their family or close friends to visit them while they're being treated at the medical center.
Weiskopf explained many fiancés and fiancées take advantage of the donated tickets because the government generally pays for up to three family members to visit very seriously injured troops.
In a flyer entitled "Be a Hero, Donate Your Frequent Flyer Miles!" the foundation said Army Capt. Daniel MacArthur Gade and his family were brought together at Walter Reed Army Medical Center here with free airline tickets.
Gade was seriously injured in Iraq by an improvised explosive device on Jan. 10, and his right leg was amputated at Walter Reed.
"The Army could fly three relatives at government expense to his bedside -- his wife, Wendy, and his parents, Ron and Erica Gade. Through its partnerships with major airlines, Fisher House Foundation provided airline tickets for other members of Gade's family, to include his daughter Anna Grace. With his family by his side to support him, Gade faces a lengthy period of recovery and rehabilitation," the flyer read.
"Fisher House Foundation is able to help the Gade family and the families of hundreds of other servicemen and women wounded or injured in Iraq or Afghanistan due to the generosity of airline passengers who have donated their frequent flyer miles to help reunite families," the flyer continued. "We take over where the government entitlements end and provide airline tickets to service members and family members."
Weiskopf credits Mary Jo Myers, wife of the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, with being a catalyst for creating the free frequent flyer miles tickets for wounded service members and their families. "What Mrs. Myers envisioned is that the service members are young, so the parents are still working and trying to be by their loved one's bedside while trying to keep their jobs too," Weiskopf said. "So a lot of them try to commute back and forth."
One day in the fall of 2003, when Mary Jo Myers was talking to family members of wounded service members while visiting Walter Reed with her husband, she said she became concerned about family members being able to afford to travel back and forth from their loved ones' bedsides.
"I was talking to one dear mother" who was caring for four children and her own widowed mother at home, Myers said. "She was there for the amputation of her son's leg, which was going to take place the next day. Yet, she had to turn around and go right back (home) because it was the beginning of the school year, and she had children to support, and she was a kindergarten teacher."
Myers said she was touched by the woman's story about using the one trip to Walter Reed that the government supplied. "Her son was going to facing long months of rehabilitation and her one trip was used up," she said.
"About the same time, there was a young soldier from Micronesia who lost three limbs," Myers noted. "His father was with him and his mother eventually came. But his father was here with him for more than a year. He couldn't go back and forth.
"I just thought, 'Oh, my goodness - family members trying to come from Micronesia to support these young men and women when they face months and months of rehabilitation and often 20 or 30 surgeries,'" she said.
Myers said it was coincidental that when she started talking to people about her concerns, many said they'd been talking to Mary Winkenwerder about the same thing. Winkenwerder is the wife of Dr. William Winkenwerder, DoD's assistant secretary of defense for health affairs.
"She had been visiting patients like I had and had come to the same conclusion," Myers said. "So we started off talking with Congressman Ruppersberger because that's when Congress had accumulated a lot of air miles for the active duty to go on R...R for troops in Operation Iraqi Freedom."
She noted that supporters of the families of wounded troops were hoping to "piggyback" on that program since the government was now funding the R...R trips.
Myers said the free air miles program can be "a lifesaver." She said she has found that many families she asks don't about the program.
Myers said she's heard many poignant stories about families being separated by distance, particularly when wives travel to be at a husband's side, leaving children at home in the care of relatives. "Children always have issues, whether they be preschoolers or teenagers, and they need mom too. And she's really torn," Myers said. "At least this allows her some of the travel back and forth to keep the injured military member's spirits up and to see different family members and friends."
Request for tickets have to originate from the service member and forwarded to Fisher House by a hospital's social work staff, family assistance center or service casualty office. "All we want to know is the reason for the hospitalization, and we don't make any distinction whether it was combat related, training accident or sports injury if they're hospitalized due to service in Iraq or Afghanistan," Weiskopf noted.
Request forms are available on the foundation's Web site. A case manager or other individual from the patient's medical facility must validate the request form.
"Even though these are free tickets, we spend money running this program, including hiring a staff member to manage the program," Weiskopf said. "We pay the Sept. 11 airport security fee and some other fees, such as the fee to change a ticket. We're working with medical problems and people can't always predict when they are going to have to travel."