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Minneapolis house for military families expanding

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Fisher House
Linda Claar wheels her son Neal back to the VA Medical Center after a visit to the Fisher House in Minneapolis, Minn. Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2010. Neal Claar, 21, is receiving care after being injured by a suicide bomber during his service in Afghanistan. Neal said his mother's daily visits helps his emotional and physical rehabilitation.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

A program that provides relatives of military service members receiving medical treatment a free place to stay is expanding to help more families at the Minneapolis VA hospital.

When a service member is injured, family members may have to stay for weeks or months at the hospital bedside far from home. Staying in hotels is an added expense at a difficult time.

The non-profit Fisher House aims to make the experience a little easier by providing these families with no-cost housing near military and VA medical facilities around the country.

Nebraska resident Linda Claar has been at Fisher House on the Minneapolis VA campus since her son transferred there two months ago.

Her son Neal Claar, 21, suffered serious injuries when a suicide bomber attacked his Marine convoy in Afghanistan.

"He lost his left eye so he has a prosthetic eye, which he just received," Linda Claar said. "He has a shattered femur, he has shrapnel injuries all over his body, he's had various surgeries and he has surgery Friday. He has to have work on his ears now; his eardrums are blown out from the blast."

Neal Claar also has traumatic brain injury and endures hours of different therapies in the hospital each day.

Fisher House
Dale Petty, a WWII veteran, meets Neal Claar during Claar's visit to the Fisher House in Minneapolis, Minn. Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2010. Petty, from Iowa, was staying in Minneapolis while his son is recovering from heart surgery, and said of the Fisher House, "It's a home away from home."
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Linda Claar, 51, said when her son was stable enough to be transferred out of Bethesda Naval Medical Center, he came to Minneapolis, one of four high-level VA polytrauma centers in the U.S. The centers specialize in treating Veterans and military personnel with multiple traumatic injuries.

When Linda Claar applied to stay at Fisher House she was placed on a waiting list for weeks, but she said it was worth the wait. Minneapolis is about seven hours from her home.

Linda Claar said Fisher House has kept her from paying for months in a hotel.

"It would be very costly and expensive for my family," she said.

Fisher House
Nicole Pruitt, left, is comforted by Linda Claar and Ede Willard at the Fisher House in Minneapolis, Minn. Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2010. Pruitt is staying at the Fisher House while her father is recovering at the VA Medical Center after he suffered a heart attack. Linda Claar said of living together at the Fisher House, "Sharing our situations with each other brings the families together."
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

And that's the idea behind the 10-bedroom Fisher House: the non-profit family-foundation that built it was launched 20 years ago after the first Gulf War to provide free housing to military families. Since 1990, the program has given shelter to more than 130,000 families around the U.S.

This month, the foundation will finish construction on a second Fisher House at the Minneapolis VA to meet the need, and it will be fully handicap accessible. The original Minneapolis house isn't -- the only way to get to the bedrooms upstairs is by staircase.

Marge Oslund, manager of the Minneapolis Fisher House, said the new $6 million 20-room house should finally eliminate the waiting list.

"One day I had 12 people that wanted a room at the Fisher House -- I had none," Oslund said.

Oslund said Fisher House is in such high demand partly because it's a comfort to families at a difficult time.

Fisher House
Ede Willard and Linda Claar walk to the VA Medical Center while staying at the Fisher House in Minneapolis, Minn. Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2010.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

"It not only gives them a sense of peace but I think it brings a peace to the veteran and to the active duty soldier to know that their family are near and can contribute to their healing," she said. "Healing isn't just a letter here and there. Healing is an every day relationship."

There are 50 Fisher Houses across the U.S.

Twin Cities resident Tom McDonough expects to raise $140,000 toward the new Fisher House this year. He got involved with fundraising after his son Bryan was killed in Iraq four years ago.

He gets choked up when he talks about what military families go through.

"Imagine, you know, if it was your son or your husband or your father. It's really important to be together," McDonough said. "And some of these people are horribly injured."

Fisher House Foundation spokeswoman Cindy Campbell said the homes fill a gap in services not provided by the military or the VA.

"The military is only going to pay for the primary next of kin, the primary family member, to come to the bedside of an injured soldier or Marine," Campbell said. "They are not going to pay for aunts and uncles and brothers and sisters and grandpa and grandma and in-laws. They don't pay for those people, so we step in to do that."

The families at Fisher House usually spend all day, every day, at the hospital. But Linda Claar said they come together around the house when they can.

And her staying there has also been good for her son.

"We support each other and I feel that because I'm here my son has had a better prognosis, has healed more quickly, because we are here with him on a daily basis and it's better for me, too," she said. "It decreases my anxiety, the stress level, because I know I have a safe place to come -- a home environment."

Linda Claar is the only one of her family in Minneapolis right now. Her husband isn't able to take extended leave from his job but he visits often. Linda Claar said the camaraderie among the families at the house makes up for any loneliness she feels.

"We share our stories with each other," she said. "A lot of times at night we sit around, we have a snack before we go to bed -- how was our family member during the day, how was our loved one, what kind of day they've had," she said. "I've made lifelong friends here."

The new Fisher House will be ready for families to move in as early as January, and will have an official launch later in the Spring.