In 2002, while visiting Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., Kenneth Fisher met a serviceman who had injured his right arm in battle. The soldier had recently returned from Afghanistan, and his arm, Fisher recalled, was "essentially pinned to his body." With visible difficulty, he did his best to shake Fisher's hand. "Thank you," the soldier said.
It was a simple, yet unexpected, gesture. "I was there to thank him," Fisher says. But the soldier's gratitude was also appropriate. As the chairman of the Fisher House Foundation, Fisher has taken on one of the most basic yet underappreciated needs of U.S. military families: facilitating their access to wounded soldiers.
In the past two decades, Fisher House, first under Fisher's uncle, and now under Fisher himself, has built more than three dozen homes-away-from-home for relatives of soldiers and veterans receiving treatment at military hospitals. In 2005 alone, more than 8,500 families stayed at Fisher Houses, some of which can accommodate up to 42 people, often for stays of over a month. All are free of charge.
Heavy toll. Fisher, 49, a senior partner at Fisher Brothers, the Manhattan real-estate firm, has been largely responsible for the expansion of the foundation, motivated by what he says is a desire to "give back" to U.S. servicemen. "People can be proactive," he says. "You can sit back and play the political card. You can ask, 'Why is the government not doing this or not doing that?' But while you're wasting your time, the need grows and grows."
Certainly the need for homefront care has grown. When Fisher took over the organization in 2003, the war in Iraq was young, but the toll of injuries was already high. Fisher says he knew the foundation would have to respond. "There were a number of nights when I didn't sleep too well," he says. "I looked at our budget and said, 'God, how are we going to pay for all of this?'"
Fisher responded by bringing a private-sector mind-set to the running of the foundation. He stresses safe, smart investing and frugal spending. Viewing donors as "shareholders," he says he welcomes criticism and free debate. Fisher House has an audit committee even though the law doesn't require it. "I don't sit in on those meetings," he says. "I don't want to restrict the way people look at the foundation."
Colleagues describe Fisher as a man of unflagging drive. A businessman and a father of three, he shuttles with apparent ease between board meetings and baseball games. "His energy is one of the first things you notice," says foundation President David Coker. "He just operates one step ahead of everybody else." As a leader, Fisher is described as discerning but not controlling. "He lets us come up with several different ideas," Coker says. "Then he says, 'This is the one we want.'"
That judgment is evident in Fisher House's bottom line. More than 95 percent of the company's annual expenses go directly to programs, according to independent charity evaluator Charity Navigator.
The foundation plans to build 20 more houses in the next four years. Fisher has also expanded services to include 3,000 college scholarships to children of military families and a program with major airlines through which the public can donate unused frequent-flier miles. So far, the foundation has bought some 11,000 airline tickets for military families.
Military wife Shannon Hainline, 26, of Athens, Ala., has stayed at three Fisher Houses—in Landstuhl, Germany, Tampa, and Bethesda, Md.—since learning that her husband, Hubble, had been shot by a sniper in Iraq and would need reconstructive skull surgery. Equipped with full kitchens, large living rooms, and even libraries, the houses have given Hainline a sense of otherwise elusive comfort. "This place really makes all the difference in the world," she says. "Your experience can go from being completely horrible to tolerable." The more than 100,000 military families served by Fisher House would probably agree.