As dignitaries celebrated the construction of a second Fisher House at the Minneapolis VA Medical Center today, it seemed appropriate that Terry Maxwell and her husband, Bill, were on hand. Terry has stayed at the first Fisher House -- a home away from home for relatives of veterans undergoing treatment -- so much over the past year that she has become its den mother.

Other families there know she has an open door policy, so they can talk to her if they are stressed or if their loved ones are struggling with treatment across the street at the Minneapolis VA. They also can look to her to enforce house rules about noise or curfews, and can count on her making mean cheesesteaks or stuffed peppers for everyone.

"I love cooking," said Terry, 46, "so I cook meals for the house. I shop if they need shopping. I help wherever I can. Financially, I can't do much. But physically, while I'm here, I do all I can."

The first time Bill needed to come from central Wisconsin to the Minneapolis VA for prolonged treatment, Terry was skeptical about what she perceived as "government housing" at the Fisher House. She worried it wouldn't be comfortable for her and her two grade-school children during tests and treatments for her husband's heart condition and breathing problems. What she discovered on that first trip last year was that the rooms were larger and more comfortable than most hotels, and that the camaraderie of other families at the house was irreplaceable. Her family has stayed there a dozen times, and arrived Wednesday in time for today's dedication ceremony of the second Fisher House on the VA campus. 

The house is often a mix of families and circumstances. Young spouses are often there alone while returnees from Iraq or Afghanistan are treated for traumatic brain injuries or the mental anguish of posttraumatic stress disorder. Older relatives are there for loved ones with chronic injuries or illnesses, or for people seeking treatment at the VA's spinal cord injury center. (One spouse has been there since April due to her husband's tractor-related injury in Nebraska.)

"It doesn't make any difference -- the age group or who the veteran is -- the family members all have a shared experience so they're there for each other," said Marge Oslund, who manages the Fisher Houses at the Minneapolis VA. 

Despite Terry's initial misconceptions of government housing, the Fisher Houses are built largely through the donations of a non-profit organization by the same name. The second house was financed in part through fundraising by the family of Bryan McDonough -- a Minnesota National Guardsman who was killed in an IED explosion in Iraq in 2006. The Minneapolis VA is now the first hospital in the VA system with two houses, Oslund said.

Oslund frequently had to turn families away in the past. But since the second house opened this spring -- increasing the capacity to up to 82 people -- Oslund hasn't had to say no to any family.

The free housing -- along with the meals and support provided to families at Fisher House -- means a lot to Bill, 68. a former Marine who remembers the poor reception returnees like him received after the Vietnam War.

"It's almost like a second home," he said. "That's the way you are treated."

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