Supporting families of the fallen: Dover Fisher House marks 10 years

A solemn dignified transfer of remains was conducted Saturday for Army 1st Lt. Trevarius R. Bowman, of Spartanburg, South Carolina, upon arrival to Dover Air Force Base. U.S. Air Force photo/Roland Balik

DOVER — Frank Gross is described by his parents as the “poster boy” for the U.S. Army, for his self-discipline and teamwork abilities. When he enlisted in the military at age 24 after completing his master’s degree, it was no surprise to his parents Toni and Craig Gross.

“The Army was a perfect fit for him,” Mrs. Gross said. “What he did, he did it to the best of his ability. That was one of his life scriptures.”

Frank Gross died while deployed in Afghanistan on July 16, 2011, when an improvised explosive device detonated underneath his vehicle. After learning the news of his death, Mr. and Mrs. Gross were told they would be staying at the Fisher House for Families of the Fallen, free of charge, to watch the dignified transfer of their son’s remains at Dover Air Force Base.

Mrs. Gross said she did not know what to expect before arriving at the facility at Dover Air Force Base.

“We had no idea what a Fisher House was. And when we arrived, we were just amazed,” Mrs. Gross said. “We were standing in front of a beautiful mansion next to the runway.”

Mr. and Mrs. Gross are just one of the 3,700 families to stay at the Fisher House since it opened in 2010, according to the Fisher House Foundation. The Dover Fisher House has saved more than $312,000 of lodging costs for families by providing them free travel and housing as they await the dignified transfer of their loved one at the base.

Ken Fisher, chairman and CEO of the Fisher House Foundation, was approached in 2010 with the idea of building a Fisher House at Dover Air Force Base. In just several months construction was finished.

This month the Dover Fisher House for Families of the Fallen celebrates 10 years of supporting families of deceased soldiers.

“It is an honor and a privilege to serve these men and women,” Mr. Fisher said. “If Fisher House is able to help any of these families on one of their darkest days, we want to do it.”

Dover Air Force Base is home to the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations, which manages the Campus for Families of the Fallen, where the Fisher House resides. The base serves as the main mortuary in the U.S., where military families come to watch the dignified transfer of a loved one, which is defined as the transfer of a soldier’s remains to the family after they have died overseas.

The Dover Fisher House, at 8,462 square feet, can house up to nine families at once, offering each family an individual suite so they may have privacy during their time of mourning.

Inside the house, along with the nine suites, there is a kitchen where staff members cook for the families, a television room and an outdoor playground for children. The Dover Fisher House is also the only house with a nondenominational chapel and a meditation pavilion so families may have a quiet place of worship, Mr. Fisher said.

Inside the Fisher House, along with the nine suites, there is a kitchen where staff members cook for the families, a television room and an outdoor playground for children. The Dover Fisher House is also the only house with a nondenominational chapel and a meditation pavilion so families may have a quiet place of worship. Delaware State News file photo

Families typically only stay at the Dover Fisher House for 24 to 48 hours while they await the dignified transfer.

Fisher House manager Tech. Sgt. Michelle Johnson said house staff members help the military families in any way they can.

“We’re really there to make sure that the family is doing well during this difficult time in their life,” Tech Sgt. Johnson said.
“Anything that they need, we make sure that we have for them.”

Mr. and Mrs. Gross emphasized their appreciation of the Dover Fisher House staff.

“They were ever present, but never intrusive. That’s what was comforting,” Mrs. Gross said. “We knew that they were there for us, they knew why we were there. It was comforting to know that … I honestly feel that time with the Fisher House at Dover Air Force Base helped us heal.”

Fisher House staff is happy to be there for military families, Tech Sgt. Johnson said.

“We’ve had families where their loved one sacrificed everything for their family and country,” Tech Sgt. Johnson said. “Being able to give this care and support to those family members after they’ve lost their loved one and being able to be there for them, helping them through this, is something that all of here at the Fisher House love doing.”

Before the Fisher House was built, families were forced to pay out of pocket to travel to Dover and stay at a hotel that may not have been close to the air base. Mr. Fisher said he built the Dover Fisher House to solve this disservice.

“Before we built the Fisher House for Families of the Fallen at Dover Air Force Base, families traveling during unthinkable and unimaginable circumstances had very few options of places to stay near the base,” Mr. Fisher said. “We felt these families deserved much better.”

Mr. Gross appreciated the privacy the Fisher House provided.

“I think if Toni and I had to stay at a hotel during that time, it would have been very, very difficult,” he said. “There were so many times when we were breaking down and crying. That would be such an uncomfortable thing to have to go through at a hotel.”

“We were guarded and protected from people staring at us, wondering why we were crying and why we looked like we did,” Mrs. Gross added. “We had the freedom to be able to do that at the Fisher House.”

Before the Fisher House was built, families were forced to pay out of pocket to travel to Dover and stay at a hotel that may not have been close to the air base. Delaware State News file photo

There are currently 87 Fisher Houses opened by the nonprofit organization that serve military families across the globe. The first house opened in 1991, and since then, the foundation has served 400,000 military families.

Some Fisher Houses are currently closed as a result of COVID-19. However, the Dover Fisher House remains open and has housed two families since March, but is taking proper health precautions, according to Dover AFB staff.

Mr. Fisher said the foundation tries to utilize the houses in the most helpful way, citing the West Roxbury, Massachusetts facility, which is housing frontline healthcare workers during the pandemic.

Mr. and Mrs. Gross said they felt so impacted by the care they received, they had to find a way to give back to the foundation. A few months after her son’s death, Mrs. Gross began volunteering at the Fisher House at the James A. Haley Veterans Hospital near their Tampa, Florida, home.

“I said to myself, I need to do something,” Mrs. Gross said. “The Fisher House came into my mind and heart. Because of my stay there, I was so overwhelmed and just wanted to give back in some way because of the care and compassion I felt.”

Mr. Gross has also donated food to the Tampa Fisher House from his restaurant, which he named after his son, Frankie’s Patriot BBQ.

Although the Fisher House Foundation and the Dover AFB are happy to mark the 10-year anniversary of the Dover Fisher House, they will not be hosting any celebration ceremonies while the COVID-19 crisis is ongoing. Base officials said they are optimistic there could be a celebration in November, pending the state of the virus.

Mr. Fisher said he is proud of everything the Dover Fisher House has done in the past 10 years for families who have lost a loved one in the military, also known as Gold Star families.

“Our Gold Star families have made the ultimate sacrifice for our nation and our nation’s freedoms. It is an honor and a privilege to serve these men and women and if Fisher House is able to help any of these families on one of their darkest days, we want to do it,” Mr. Fisher said.


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