Ill and injured servicemembers and their families are often enduring the most difficult days of their lives. To help ease their burden and help their healing, the Joint Base Lewis-McChord Fisher House offers them a place to stay. But it is much more than a hotel. The modest, two-story brick house, located just down the street from Madigan Army Medical Center, truly is a home away from home. Comfy couches, books and a slew of toys fill the living room, and residents congregate in the kitchen and dining room just as members of a family would.
Often, servicemembers and their families staying at the Fisher House are brought together by tragedy or heartbreak and bond with each other as well as with the staff and volunteers.
This sense of home struck a particularly deep chord recently when 201st Battlefield Surveillance Brigade Pfc. Amber Rogers, 18, and her fiancé, Pfc. Diondre Jenkins, 19, lost their unborn son. After living in the home for several days, Rogers and Jenkins, who was then stationed with the 501st Sustainment Brigade in Korea, decided they wanted to get married there.
Amber was seven months pregnant with her first child, a boy to be named Dalton, when she noticed the baby wasn't moving. A visit to the doctor confirmed every expectant mother's worst fear: the baby had died in utero. When she got the news, Amber, who had only been on JBLM for a few weeks, called Diondre in Korea, distraught and told him what had happened.
"I took it pretty hard," Diondre said. "That was going to be my first child. I had just bought baby outfits for him."
Since the couple, engaged since December 2012, was not yet married, Diondre couldn't take emergency leave. However, he talked to his commander and first sergeant, and his unit got involved to help him leave Korea quickly to be by Amber's side.
"They did everything they could to get me on the next flight," he said. "I just wanted to be there with her."
A home away from home
Although familiar with its civilian cousin Ronald McDonald House, neither soldier had ever heard of the Fisher House. Amber's unit on JBLM got the wheels in motion, however, and "did everything they could," Diondre said, and the couple was assured a room at the home.
The day after Diondre arrived at JBLM, Amber was induced. She delivered Dalton on Aug. 7 at Madigan and was discharged the next day. The couple settled in to the Fisher House to heal both their physical and emotional wounds.
It was a hard time for the young couple, who found solace and support in the home's other residents.
"We were all there for a different reason," Diondre said. "But we were all there for each other. It's like we were a family."
After they had been at the home for several days, Diondre suggested to Amber that they get married there. With their families far away in Georgia and Mississippi, it wasn't going to be possible for them to have a typical wedding, and they didn't want a stale service at a local courthouse.
"Everyone in the Fisher House was more like our family, so why not have it there," Diondre recalled.
He approached Assistant Manager Michele Winn on Friday, Aug. 16, with the idea. Staff and volunteers rallied together to help make it happen. Volunteer Lindsey Shaddrix called the McChord chapel and got in touch with the chaplain on duty. He met with the couple and agreed to marry them. Shaddrix also reached out to the McChord Commissary, which "accommodated our last-minute request and really did a great job," she said. "(Wanda) was so helpful and made it really easy for us to get a cake - especially considering that this was a custom-made wedding cake."
Another Fisher House volunteer, Jennifer McIntyre, was the wedding photographer, and other volunteers and staff pitched in to make the event a success.
The couple exchanged vows in the home's backyard gazebo on Monday, Aug. 19.
Diondre's best man was "Mr. Pat," a fellow Fisher House resident, and an NCO in Amber's unit, Sgt. Kenyatta Moreland, walked her down the aisle.
"The wedding was absolutely beautiful," Amber said. "It made me feel so special and loved. I will always be grateful for the Fisher House and all the people that helped make our wedding a success."
The wedding also offered staff, volunteers and Fisher House residents a reason to celebrate.
"You could see everyone was happy. They got to be a part of something nice. Everything was sincere, real. We had a good day," Diondre said.
"I'm a sucker for weddings and this was no exception," Shaddrix said. "So often people come to the Fisher House under less than ideal circumstances, so it was wonderful to be able to hold such a joyous occasion. I'm very blessed to have been a part of it."
For Amber and Diondre, it was also an important step toward overcoming the loss of their baby. During the ceremony, the couple lit a candle in their son's memory.
"I can honestly say it helped me heal," Diondre said. "There was joy over the pain. It made me feel great, like another step forward."
Being among other families facing and overcoming tragedy helped Amber as well.
"Being at the Fisher House around the other families going through things helped me be strong and realize that I'm not the only one going through something," she said.
Following the wedding, Diondre stayed with his new wife for a few weeks, then headed back to Korea, where he was on orders to PCS to Fort Hood, Texas. However, he spoke to his chain of command about being assigned alongside his wife, and eventually received a compassionate reassignment. Later this month, he will PCS to JBLM to work with the 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division.
The JBLM Fisher House offers comfort, caring and compassion to military families during a trying time in their lives. It is one of 61 similar homes around the world and has seven bedrooms, a full kitchen, living room, laundry facilities, dining room, outside play area and much more. Eligible families can stay at the Fisher House for up to six months at no cost to them. The house always needs volunteers and donations. For more information or if you would like to help, visit www.fisherhouse-jblm.org, call 253.964.9283, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or stop by the home, located at 9999 Wilson Ave. on JBLM. For more information about the Fisher House Foundation, visit www.fisherhouse.org.