One soldier said it felt like Christmas times 10.

But Sgt. 1st Class Anthony Parnell was at a loss to describe the mood as a new 12,000-square-foot community center for the wounded was dedicated Monday at Fort Sam Houston.

"There really are no words to express my gratitude for the people who donated this building," said Parnell, who is being treated for a head injury he suffered in a vehicle accident in South Korea. "For every tear we've shed, it wouldn't be enough to repay them."

Parnell, 36, now has a first-rate setting to relax with his wife and children, due to the generosity of builders, contractors and donors of the new $5 million Warrior and Family Support Center.

The center's evolution - from a cramped room in the post's guest house to what it is now - is one of the inspiring stories of the war. It opened in 2003 with plans to close in 2004.

"They promised me six months, and I could go home and watch Oprah," Judith Markelz, the center's program manager, told more than 1,000 people at the dedication.

As 4,000 wounded patients flowed through the post, bringing families with them, Markelz and her small staff and volunteers quickly got swamped.

And Markelz never got to see Oprah. But she got the interest of local developer Steve Huffman and his brother, Les, who saw that she needed a building. Two years later, she has a top-notch facility with an 18-foot Christmas tree in its spacious living room.

ABC News anchor Bob Woodruff, the keynote speaker, provided the day's lightest moment when he chided Markelz for avoiding her television.

"Judith, my wife and I were on Oprah. Did you even have time to watch it'" said Woodruff, who survived a life-threatening head wound he suffered in Iraq in 2006.

The Bob Woodruff Family Foundation, which had donated $100,000 for the center, announced a second $100,000 donation.

Returning Heroes Home, the nonprofit that raised funds for the site, is collecting funds to pay off $500,000 in debt for the building and build a $1 million park next to it.

Woodruff said the center represents the long-term community support the wounded need - "That's why we've got to have a permanent building like this."

The center includes a luxurious kitchen, computer classroom and children's play area. Huffman Developments sought to combine function with a homey feel and plenty of windows that let in sunlight.

Markelz said anyone who wants to donate to the center's program can call (210) 241-0811.

Staff Sgt. Bill Kleinedler, still healing from a 2006 bomb blast in Iraq, produced a metal butterfly sculpture as a centerpiece for the living room. Seeing it viewed by visitors almost brought tears to his eyes, he said.

"This is Christmas times 10," Kleinedler said. "It's Christmas on steroids."

Emotions also were strong in the 800-square-foot game room, with four 50-inch high-definition screens for television-watching or video games - Xbox, PlayStation and Nintendo Wii - and a giant screen for movies.

Part of the room's cost was funded with $18,000 that David Donica of Houston collected in a fund in memory of his son, Dustin Donica, the 3,000th U.S. service member killed in Iraq.

"I had no idea where this room was going to end up," said Donica, whose son had asked him shortly before he was killed to visit a wounded comrade at Fort Sam.

Sgt. Domingo Soto-Santana, who lost part of his left arm to a bomb blast in Iraq, helped design the room. He's back on active duty at Fort Sam, and at 25 he is a young father with some of his best years ahead.

But he wants to return to the center, to play games in style with friends, old and new.

"If there's another tournament, they'd better call me up. I'm coming," he said.

Copyright 2008 San Antonio Express-News, reprinted with permission.

Page last updated Fri July 22nd, 2011 at 12:16