Heroes Come Home: Veterans work to bring Fisher House to Milwaukee

MILWAUKEE -- As the Iraq and Afghanistan wars wind down, Wisconsin troops are returning to their friends, families and everyday lives. In FOX6's new and ongoing series, we'll profile these soldiers and showcase happy reunions, difficult challenges and how these modern-day heroes transition back to civilian life. The first in this series is a story of those who work to help injured veterans, working to bring the Fisher House to Milwaukee to provide some relief to families of injured veterans.

The Milwaukee VA Spinal Cord Injury Center opened its doors in April -- making it the newest and one of the most advanced in the country. The center boasts an array of rehab technology, a live-in training apartment and specialized sporting gear.

Doctor Kenneth Lee, also known as "Colonel Lee" serves as the Spinal Cord Injury Center Division Manager. He's also the state surgeon for the Wisconsin National Guard, and a purple heart recipient.

In November of 2003, Lee was called up to active duty and deployed to Iraq for a one-year tour. On September 12th, 2004 -- just two months shy of that mark, Lee's convoy was hit by a car bomber and three out of nine soldiers on board were seriously injured. Shrapnel peppered Lee's body, and his mind was forever changed by a traumatic brain injury.

Lee arrived home on a stretcher, and says his family was shocked to see him in that state. He received multiple surgeries and about three months of rehab. He was treated at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. -- far from his southeastern Wisconsin home.

"The last thing you want to worry about is, is there a place for my family to stay as I go through this rehab? Currently, we don't have a place, so a family has to stay in a hotel. They try to find the cheapest hotel which may be five, six miles away," Lee said.

What Lee says he needed was a place his family could stay long-term at little cost to be close to the hospital and feel at home. Fortunately, they found all of that in Fisher House. Fisher Houses dot the U.S., and former Army Captain Dan Buttery is now working to bring one to Milwaukee.

Buttery was forced into medical retirement after 12 years of service, including a 2003 deployment to Iraq.

"I learned of this organization where all these Wisconsin troops and their families were staying, at this place called Fisher House. This is now my next chapter," Buttery said.

Buttery says having loved ones nearby can make a monumental difference for those working to recover, but being away from home, the daily drive and the cost of a hotel can be stressors on a family already experiencing incredible challenges.

"(Fisher House) allows family members and loved ones to be close, walking distance normally, so they can be bedside with their loved one while they're going through the healing process," Buttery said.

Establishing a Fisher House doesn't happen overnight. The Milwaukee location has been in the works since 2006. Its construction must be paid for through local foundation fundraising.

"We've gained a lot of ground on this mission, but we really need to just finally put it over the edge. Our primary goal is to just give back to those families and those service members who've given so much," Buttery said.

Since its founding more than two decades ago, the Fisher House has saved families nearly $200 million by providing more than four million days of lodging.

The first Fisher House opened in 1990 by founder Zach Fisher and has since grown to 57 Fisher Houses across the U.S. and around the world. 28 more are in the works, including Milwaukee's. Though they are all supported by the national program, it's the local foundations that are responsible for each house.

Construction is set to begin on Milwaukee's Fisher House in 2013.

There was more support for Milwaukee's Fisher House this weekend, as motorcyclists gathered Saturday, September 8th for a ride to benefit the Fisher House. This was the third time the ride was held.