America Supports You: Group eases financial burden for patients, families

24 Jul 2005 | Mr. Rudi Williams

A group based here at Walter Reed Army Medical Center here has stepped forward to help families of wounded servicemembers with expenses to stay in the area while their loved ones recover in this high-cost area.Out of concern for the overwhelming number of family members of war-wounded servicemembers showing up at the hospital's doorstep needing financial assistance, the Walter Reed command asked the Walter Reed Society to help. "So on March 19, 2004, we created the Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom Family Support Fund," said retired Army Sgt. Maj. Daniel J. Bullis, the society's vice president for patient relations and committee member of the support fund. "Since then, we've gotten a tremendous amount of support from corporations and individuals across the country wanting to donate to that fund."Bullis credits Pennsylvania Rep. John P. Murtha and General Dynamics Corp. with getting the fund rolling with a $100,000 donation. He noted that the fund helps families of patients from all services. Those needing assistance are referred to the society by the Walter Reed Medical Family Assistance Center."Since this is such a high-cost area (Washington metropolitan area), we help families with living expenses, keeping up with bills back home, child care, just a host of financial needs they have," Bullis said.The government pays one-time round-rip transportation costs for up to three family members of patients whom doctors verify as "seriously ill" or "very seriously ill," Bullis said. For family members of patients who are not in either of these categories, "there's a program for free frequent flyer air miles available through the Fisher House Foundation," he said."The types of requests for assistance we get run the gamut," Bullis noted. "If a soldier has lost a limb, they're going to be here (Walter Reed) for quite some time getting care and their new prosthesis. So as a result, the family is here for a long time. If there are small children with the mom, we help with paying for the child care so the wife can be on the ward with her husband. Or we fund some of the needs for the mom and dad to live in a high-cost area."Bullis said it has been "quite a challenge" since the fund's establishment. He noted that the outpouring of support from across the country is phenomenal. For example, he said, "a Vietnam veteran who is a custom home builder in Michigan held a silent auction in of one of his homes and raised about $60,000. He asked if we could earmark a good portion of that for the needs of patients in occupational therapy."Donors include a colonel's widow who visits the hospital periodically and gave the society a check for $10,000 and an art dealer in Chicago who sent two $50,000 checks."It's not the amounts that count; we've received checks from $10 to $50,000," Bullis said during a recent society meeting at the Mologne House hotel on the Walter Reed campus. "We're all volunteers, so there's no overhead for the society. All the money coming in goes out to servicemembers and their families."Bullis emphasized that needing money to help wounded servicemembers and their families isn't a reflection on the command, because the myriad needs of seriously injured troops outweigh the ability of the command to respond. He said husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, fiancees and girlfriends come to the hospital from across the nation to be with their loved ones being treated for war wounds and injuries.Some family members and loved ones get the government-paid transportation and around $38 per day to cover living costs, Bullis noted.Others are not sponsored, "but they come anyway, because there's no way they can stay home when their loved one is here being cared for," Bullis said. "So they drive from Texas or across the country and show up here. And their needs are just as real as those that are sponsored (by the government)."Bullis said he meets with family members referred to the society by the medical family assistance center. "I sit with each family member, to meet them, embrace them and let them know that we're here for them. Then I communicate their needs to the Walter Reed Society OIF/OEF committee. Generally, we get everything done within a day."At the society meeting, Bullis described examples of people who have needed the society's help. For instance, a staff sergeant Army sniper who suffered a head injury, lost an eye and had short-term memory loss had tremendous financial needs for himself and his three children.He couldn't remember where he stored his truck before going to Iraq. He knew it was somewhere in Washington state, but couldn't remember where."So through our network of helpers with veterans service organizations, one of them happened to be the chief of police in Seattle and he found (the soldier's) truck," Bullis said.In another case, the mother and father of a soldier in extended care were visiting him at Walter Reed when the father collapsed with a fatal heart attack."It's devastating enough to be here with your son, but for that to happen and the family to be without any means of shipping the remains back to their home in New York is rough," Bullis said. "But the Walter Reed Society was here to do that for them."Bullis also explained helping a staff sergeant who had a fractured jaw that was wired shut. The soldier and his wife needed help. "They said they needed financial assistance to take a train back home," Bullis said. "I said, 'Why a train?'"The soldier and his wife explained that he had to have wire cutters with him in case they needed to get his mouth open in an emergency - but this posed a problem with airline security. "We called the Transportation Security Administration, and they allowed him to fly," Bullis said.The society stepped in again when a mother and father were visiting their son, who was diagnosed with terminal cancer in Iraq. "They needed to get the soldier and the family back to Stanford (Calif.) Cancer Center," Bullis said. "The mom and dad were divorced, and they both needed help. They came here to be with their son, so we gave each of them $1,000. That amount is beyond the society's normal $500 limit for financial assistance, he explained, "but within what they needed."He added that the society makes some exceptions for some family needs such as mortgage and car payments and power bills.On a smaller scale, the society has provided local transportation for servicemembers at Walter Reed, purchased special mats to train lower extremity amputees to walk on surfaces and special mats to teach them how to fall safely. It has also bought musical instruments for occupational-therapy patients to help them with dexterity problems.Nine patrons of Walter Reed founded the society in 1996. Since then, it has grown to more than 450 members. "It has proliferated into a much bigger cause of involving the whole Walter Reed family," Bullis noted.The society's goal is to preserve and enhance the medical center's history and reputation, and to assist its patients and staff.The society's board of governors includes physicians, nurses, administrators, family members, and retired servicemembers and Army civilians. Membership is open to officers, enlisted, active and reserve component members, retired servicemembers and civilians, family members, and past and present patients.The society has also helped finance a healing garden on the Walter Reed campus where families and loved ones can go in solace and spend time by themselves, Bullis said.In addition to accepting donations, the society sells affordable signature items, such as a 3-by-4-foot afghan depicting six familiar Walter Reed landmarks, holiday ornaments, key rings, pewter containers, mugs, prints, note cards, pens and other items to raise money to help patients and their families."As tragic as war is, it has certainly allowed the society to be a conduit of the spirit of America," Bullis said. "There are so many folks coming forward with so many donations and goodwill gestures that it's just heartwarming to be a part of that whole effort in trying to carry out the desires of America's support toward our men and women in uniform."
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