Honorable mission at Fisher House

  • Published
  • By Michael Mika
  • At Ease Magazine

DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del. -- Learning a loved one has perished while serving their country is one of the worst phone calls a military family can receive.

Typically, the family is told of the solemn Dignified Transfer ceremony and offered transportation to the Dover Fisher House for Families of the Fallen — a special place to stay while they wait to participate in the early morning ceremony.

Everyone who is part of the Dover Fisher House operation has no problem describing their mission.

“Doing this job is never easy. But it is very honorable. Every family grieves differently, and this is only the beginning of their process,” said Master Sgt. Kayla Hemmesch, who leads the team. “We just hope that we make some type of impact for them for one of the worst times of their lives.” 

The Campus for the Families of the Fallen consists of three main areas: the Center for Families of the Fallen, the Fisher House for Families of the Fallen and the Meditation Pavilion. The facilities are designed to provide families with an area of privacy, comfort and support while they are at Dover AFB.

The solemn dignified transfer starts with the fallen being returned to Dover AFB and accepted by family members. In 2009, the Secretary of Defense changed the policy opening the ceremonies to media coverage with family approval.

“I find the honor in being able to be part of this mission,” Hemmesch said. “It's not easy, but I came here because I wanted to be part of this, I wanted to help take care of these families.” (She served an earlier role and has returned now for a 3-year tour.)

And the tasks the team offers vary by each family. She explained two of the biggest support institutions — USO Delaware and Friends of the Fallen — always manage to meet the needs of the families.

"They greatly support us and the house and the families … The USO provides the groceries, and Friends of the Fallen provide support for the families," she said. 
Since 2010, the facility in Dover has been part of a network of homes across the country that served more than 3,700 families who came for the ceremony. The house is supported by volunteers and service members, and provides free lodging. 
The first house in the Fisher House network was built in Bethesda, Maryland, near Walter Reed Medical Center. Today there are 92 with plans to add 10 more by 2024. 
Ken Fisher, President CEO of the Fisher House Foundation recalls a special memory about the decision to build a place for Families of the Fallen in Dover.

“All of the Fisher Houses are special because they fill a need so basic, yet so underappreciated — housing families during medical crises at no charge,” said Fisher, “The Dover house is different from our normal process.”

Usually, the organization works with the Department of Defense and recommends the cities and bases that need such a facility. Fisher said he learned that the military was starting to let families come to Dover for dignified transfers from Afghanistan and Iraq and they had no place to stay.

“When they made me aware of that, I acted as quickly as possible to fast track the house in Dover,” Fisher said. “We broke ground on Memorial Day in 2010 and opened it on Veterans Day. “The Dover house is also the only one supporting a mortuary.”

“We also found out there was no place spiritually to go and pray or meditate ... So right across the street we built a non-denominational chapel that families could go to anytime and pray in whatever way they do,” Fisher said. “It provides the families of the fallen a place to stay for free, but also gives them that place to go for their own spiritual experience.

Volunteers part of the mission
The USO has been involved with the mission from the start and describe their role as "behind the scenes" to make sure the families’ trip is easy.

“When we find out their travel arrangements, we try to coordinate all the details, so they know they have a safe place to deal with the other things they must," Yolanda Bottorf, USO Delaware senior center operations and program manager, said.

Bottorff said the team will make sure the Fisher House is stocked with the food and drinks preferred by the individual families. Sometimes they may need clothing or toys and we get those too.

Holidays are always hard for families who come to Fisher House. Once they got Halloween costumes for the children and took them around the base house to trick or treat.  Another time a Thanksgiving family tradition was to have Italian dinner when their loved one had passed away.

"We reached out and provided them with lasagna, breadsticks and salads."

Friends of the Fallen, another community-based volunteer group, provides service and assistance to the families. Volunteers collect the donations of baked goods, snacks and beverages for the house. They also have handmade prayer shawls available for family members if they want them.

"Our main work is to sit with the families as they wait to go out on the flight line for the dignified transfer of their loved one," Laura Bashista, President Friends of the Fallen, said. "We are here for the main emotional support they may need. We want to be someone they see who is not in uniform, as that can be a very daunting experience," she said.

(The Air Force's Fisher House Program is managed by the Air Force Services Center, a primary subordinate unit under the Air Force Installation and Mission Support Center. AFSVC works with Fisher House managers to create and execute realistic nonappropriated fund budgets, accomplish renovations projects as needed, and develops and implements manager guidance and compliance standards across Fisher House locations on Air and Space Forces installations. Although AFSVC still plays an important role in the Dover Fisher House for Families of the Fallen, because of its unique mission it is manned by military members, rather than civilians, and uses appropriated funding as part of Air Force Mortuary Affairs. For more on the Fisher House Program, visit https://fisherhouse.org/. This article was originally published in At Ease, a military lifestyle magazine published by DC Military and APG Media of Chesapeake. This article was originally published in At Ease, a military lifestyle magazine published by DC Military and APG Media of Chesapeake. This is reprinted with At Ease's permission.)