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Operation Hero Miles expands

31 Dec 2003 | Army Sgt. 1st Class Doug Sample

Alice Rodgers, a single mother, paid more than $1,000 for round-trip tickets from Tipton, Iowa, so she and her daughter, Lindsey, could visit her son. He is recuperating at Walter Reed Army Medical Center here from wounds he suffered in an ambush in Iraq.

However, when Rodgers returns for her next visit, the trip will be far less expensive -- it will cost her nothing.

During a press briefing at the hospital Dec. 30, Maryland Rep. C.A. "Dutch" Ruppersberger handed 680 free airline tickets to David Coker, executive director and vice president of operations at the Fisher House Foundation. The foundations is a nonprofit organization that provides temporary living quarters to military families visiting loved ones at military hospitals.

The congressman said the free airline tickets are part of a new expansion of Operation Hero Miles, a program he created to provide airline tickets to servicemembers on emergency or rest and recuperation leave.

The program now includes free airline tickets to family members traveling to visit loved ones injured during operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom and recovering at military hospitals throughout the country, he said.

"We decided to expand this program even (further), because our program is about helping the troops -- the men and women who are putting their lives on the line for our freedom and liberty in Iraq and Afghanistan," Ruppersberger said, adding that having family close by helps the healing process.

The tickets were compliments of Anheuser-Busch, whose employees donated their frequent-flier miles to the cause. So far more than 365 million frequent-flyer miles have been donated to Operation Hero Miles, enough for some 14,800 free round-trip tickets for troops, Ruppersberger said.

The Fisher House Foundation, which operates 32 Fisher Houses throughout the United States and overseas, will use the free tickets to help reunite wounded and injured servicemembers with their loved ones, Coker said.

Sixteen Fisher Houses at 12 locations have supported families of servicemembers injured during operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, Coker said.

"It's not uncommon for a family to stay in more than one Fisher House as they follow their loved ones through the medical-evacuation chain," he said.

He said room charges for family members have been waived or paid by the foundation, and that in the past the foundation also has helped to provide travel for some families.

Rodgers left her job to come to Walter Reed shortly after her son, Spc. Joe Gottschalk, arrived here Dec. 4.

Gottschalk, of the Iowa National Guard’s 2133rd Transportation Unit, was wounded in an ambush on his convoy near the Syrian border Nov. 29, the day after his birthday. Gottschalk was shot in the head; the bullet entered the back of his neck and shattered his jaw. His close hometown friend, Army Sgt. Aaron Sissel, riding alongside him, was killed. Sissel’s mother, Jo Sissel, wearing a button with her son's photo, said that although since her son's death she is no longer considered part of the military, she hopes to benefit from the program. She and daughter, Shanna, also paid large sums for their tickets to Washington, coming here to lend support to the Rodgers family.

The two mothers, who have been staying at Walter Reed's Fisher House, agree the free airline tickets mean a lot.

"There needs to be more programs like this to help people," Rodgers said. "I'm not working. I had to leave my job to come see my son and be with him, so it's hard. But this is a good program."

The donated airline tickets will be available to relatives or friends of inpatients as identified by the wounded or injured servicemembers and validated by the medical center staff. Family members should not contact the Fisher House Foundation, but should make their desires known to the hospitalized servicemember. The program includes complimentary airline tickets only. There are no provisions for assistance with local travel, overnight accommodations, meals or other expenses, officials said.
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