When Toni Gross stood at the entrance of the Dover Fisher House for Families of the Fallen, she had no idea what to expect.
The previous hours were a blur, filled with grief and disbelief. It was July 2011, and she and her husband and daughter learned that Army Cpl. Frank Gross, their only son and brother, had been killed by an IED while serving in Afghanistan.
He was 25. And just like that, a mere few weeks into deployment, he was gone.
"We were just numb," Toni Gross said.
The day after learning of Frank's death, the Grosses traveled from Oldsmar, Florida to Dover Air Force Base, Delaware, expecting to stay at "some place like a Hampton Inn" for the dignified transfer of Frank's body. But instead, just across the street from the runway, they spent 24 hours at the Dover Fisher House for Families of the Fallen — a house created by Fisher House Foundation specifically for loved ones of those who have fallen through combat.
"It was a wonderfully comforting experience, and everything we could possibly think of— all of our needs, food, everything — was taken care of," Toni Gross said. "We were able to spend time focusing on why we were there: grieving the loss of our son."
That's exactly what the chairman and CEO of Fisher House wants to hear. Ken Fisher is a third-generation leader of one of America's most successful family-owned real estate development and management companies, but he is also expressly passionate about honoring veterans while assisting their families.
The foundation offers several programs to support military families through critical times, like the Hero Miles program and a scholarship program for military children, spouses, and children of fallen and disabled veterans. In 2019 alone, more than 32,000 families were served, according to its website.
There are 87 Fisher Houses located on 25 military installations and 38 VA medical centers, with several more in the works. Run by the Fisher House Foundation, Inc., each Fisher House provides free lodging for military families whose loved ones are receiving medical treatment nearby.
The Fisher House at Dover, however, is special for many reasons, Fisher says, because "it was built to honor the ultimate sacrifices of those who wear the uniform."
Those who stay there aren't waiting for a recovery but a goodbye to their airman, soldier, Marine, sailor or Coastie.
"I think the Fisher House at Dover does more than just provide lodging," Fisher said. "It's important that these families who have made the ultimate sacrifice understand that there are Americans that are very grateful."
The Fisher House at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware. Photo Roland Balik.
Built in just a few months in 2010, the Fisher House at Dover is equipped with nine guest suites that have seen approximately 3,700 guests since its opening. The average length of stay is 24 to 48 hours, with a typical family consists of six to 10 members.
Air Force Tech. Sgt. Michelle Johnson watches over each one. As house manager, it's her job to make sure each guest has every need — and every want —taken care of.
One family with small children, for example, stayed at the house over Halloween. Staff members purchased costumes and took them trick-or-treating. Another time, they cooked a traditional holiday dinner for a family receiving their loved one's body over Christmas.
"[These families] are experiencing a very difficult point in their lives, and grieving comes in different ways, so we make sure the Fisher House staff members takes care of those families," Johnson said. "Giving them the care that they need and providing them with any comfort required."
Toni Gross' experience with staff members made such an impact that she now volunteers regularly at a Fisher House in Florida. Similarly, Ken Fisher, whose 87-year-old father served in the Korean War, calls the houses his "passion."
"The House at Dover is particularly relevant as we approach Memorial Day, even while we're in the grip of a pandemic," he said. "In the end, we can never ever forget what has been done, what has been given to us, this freedom. That what we hold most dear above everything else — that came at a cost."
And for families who have experienced that cost, like Toni Gross, it is "comforting" to have a place of refuge during such a difficult time.
"My family and I are grateful to the Fisher House Foundation for our stay at Dover Air Force Base. While it was a solemn time, it was comforting to know that the staff there all understood why we were there and were able to accommodate us during our darkest hours," Gross said.