By Chad Stewart

SAN ANTONIO—The USO and the Fisher House Foundation go way back.

An indirect link between the two military service organizations extends to World War II, about 50 years before the first Fisher House opened its doors.

Before she married Zachary Fisher and helped create the charitable foundation that bears their names, Elizabeth Kenowsky Fisher visited wounded troops in field hospitals and entertained more than 150,000 service members with the USO. She died in 2004 after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease, but the connection between the organization she served and the organization she helped build is alive and well.

USO Route 75 stopped in San Antonio recently and visited Fisher House at Lackland Air Force Base to find out how the organizations work together.

While the USO keeps service members connected to family, home and country with numerous programs and services at its centers around the globe, 69 Fisher Houses in the U.S. and Germany give military members a comfortable place to stay while they or their loved ones receive medical care.

Fisher House at Lackland – three separate buildings that can house 26 families – tries to make military families feel at home. Vibrant, hand-painted murals of animals grace the walls of a meticulously organized “war room” designed for children’s activities. The shared living and dining rooms are large, inviting spaces for families to congregate and connect. The average stay is 13 days, but families can live there for up to 15 months, if necessary.

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Retired Air Force Command Chief Master Sgt. Dwayne Hopkins, the executive director of Fisher House, Inc., shows USO Route 75 around one of the Fisher Houses at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio.

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At Fisher House at Lackland, murals of animals decorate the walls of a “war room” designed for children’s activities.

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A bust of Zachary and Elizabeth Fisher, the organization’s co-founders, sits near the front door.

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Each of the three Fisher Houses at Lackland Air Force Base are decorated with hand-painted murals of animals.

People would pay top dollar to stay in a place like Fisher House, but they don’t have to. It’s all free.

“It doesn’t cost them a dime to stay here,” said retired Air Force Command Chief Master Sgt. Dwayne Hopkins, the executive director of Fisher House, Inc., in the San Antonio area.

Dubbed Military City USA, San Antonio is home to three major medical facilities – Wilford Hall Ambulatory Surgical Center, South Texas Veterans Health Care System and San Antonio Military Medical Center – and Fisher House has buildings at each location. At Lackland, the USO provides dinner for house guests once a month. The opportunity to serve military families is hotly contested, but the USO doesn’t have to compete for a spot.

“We’re booked every Tuesday and Thursday for four months for organizations to come in and serve dinner,” said Hopkins, who directs the operation near Wilford Hall. “People are fighting to get into our Fisher House to serve military members. However, the USO has a standing time and day once a month.”

The gesture is appreciated by patients and family members who spend stressful days rehabbing, filling out paperwork and trekking to and from medical appointments. Hopkins called the USO’s efforts “extensive.”

“When I say they come in and help with dinner, it’s dinner for 26 families,” said Hopkins, who served 29 years on active duty and enjoyed a brief, four-day respite before joining Fisher House. “Not just 26 people – 26 families.”

San Antonio isn’t the only place the organizations are working together to support service members and military families. The USO and Fisher House join forces at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to help families of the fallen and at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany to provide a home-away-from-home environment for patients receiving care at the largest American hospital outside the United States.

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At Lackland, Hopkins – a former USO San Antonio Advisory Council president – said the USO logo resonates with the people staying at Fisher House.

“I think when people from the USO come over here [to Fisher House], our guests see a friend and a comrade,” he said. “They know [the USO is] here for military people.”

Hopkins knows from experience. He served in Iraq and Afghanistan and remembers the opportunities the USO provided downrange and how the organization connected deployed service members to their families back home.

“A lot of people think about Bob Hope when they see USO,” he said. “I don’t. I think of that little center that had games and you could send a video home to the wife and the kids.”

The well-known acronym has taken on new meaning since he retired from the Air Force.

“Now it’s more than that. I think about the USO stopping by Fisher House.”

You can send a message of support and thanks directly to service members via the USO’s Campaign to Connect. Your messages will appear on screens at USO locations around the world.