$5M oasis for war wounded to open at Texas base

SAN ANTONIO (AP) -- Judith Markelz has relied on volunteers for years to help the war wounded and their families. They've brought meals, DVDs, event tickets and an endless supply of cookies to help comfort those whose lives suddenly were upended by a bomb or a bullet.

So when new volunteer Les Huffman arrived in January 2007 at the chaotic 1,000-square-foot room used for the Warrior and Family Support Center and asked what Markelz needed, the program manager said a new video game system.

But Huffman, the president of a small commercial development firm, wanted to do more. When Markelz conceded she could use a little more room, that's what she got: a $5 million building funded by private donations and designed like a house, with a therapeutic garden, classroom, video game room and kitchen.

"I asked for an Xbox 360 and I got a 12,500 square-foot building," she said with a laugh. "Nice trade-off."

Markelz gets the keys to the place at Fort Sam Houston on Monday. It will be the first center of its kind built on an Army post.

The original support center opened five years ago and was expected to offer a couple of activities a month and provide a place for the wounded so they wouldn't stay in their cramped barracks all the time.

But as the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan dragged on, the number of severely wounded servicemembers grew. Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam has the Army's only burn unit and a large amputee rehabilitation program, meaning many of the wounded are there for the long haul.

Their family members - usually wives or mothers - often drop everything when they get the call that their spouse or child is wounded and arrive in San Antonio overwhelmed. They forget diapers for their infants, don't have more than a couple changes of clothes and don't have a way of getting around the city.

"I had a lady get off the plane with two left shoes," Markelz said. "When you get that phone call, rational is not what you are."

After the immediate panic, the families have other needs. Sometimes, spouses need education or job skills, and they often need the diversion of crafts, meals and outings, Markelz said.

The 59-year-old retired teacher and her three-member staff work with volunteers to provide all that in the overflowing conference room of a Fort Sam hotel. They've logged 264,000 visits from servicemembers and their relatives in the last five years.

The new building will let the staff and families do things the cramped room didn't allow.

Families will be able to cook in the large kitchen. A barbecue pavilion sits near a garden built for relaxation and therapy. A classroom will offer graduation equivalency diploma classes and other skills. A high-end game room designed by some of the wounded servicemen will host video game tournaments and movie nights.

A soaring 18-foot metal sculpture of butterflies - a symbol of hope that a group of the burn center mothers adopted - swirls over the fireplace; it was designed by one of the wounded soldiers.

"It doesn't look like anything the Army has ever built," Markelz said.

Cash donations to the Returning Heroes Home, the nonprofit that Huffman Developments set up for the project, were supplemented by subcontractors eager to give their time and by suppliers willing to give materials for free or at steep discounts.

"Whenever we've needed anything, things have just come together," said Beverly Lamoureux, the Huffman Developments executive vice president who helped oversee the design and building of the new center.

Huffman, a local developer with 10 employees, mostly builds medical and dental offices. It had never built for the Army before and wanted the center to feel like a lodge, with a limestone facade and rustic Lone Star-themed fixtures.

But the support center also had to comply with Army building codes, so blast resistant windows were installed, energy efficiency rules were followed and reclaimed beams from a Naval base were used, Lamoureux said.

"It's just our way to say thank you," she said. "I don't think there will be a project I'll ever be involved in that will mean as much to me."

Huffman and the Returning Heroes Home just got permission from the Army to do more. Seven acres off the back of the garden will be developed into a park space, with an amphitheater and barbecue areas. It'll also include trails that therapists can use to work with new prosthetic wearers and other wounded servicemembers.

Markelz wants to move into the new building before the holidays. A Jewish group will provide a big Christmas dinner, as it does every year for the wounded and their families who can't go elsewhere. The staff and volunteers will make sure the wounded servicemembers, especially the ones here without family, get gifts and a sense of family.

"I can guarantee: Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus," Markelz said, borrowing a line from the famous 1897 New York Sun editorial. "That much I have learned."


On the Net:

Returning Heroes Home: http://www.returningheroeshome.org

© 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. Learn more about our Privacy Policy.