By Fred W. Baker III, American Forces Press ServiceNovember 14, 2008
FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas, Nov. 13, 2008 - The Warrior and Family Support Center located steps away from Brooke Army Medical Center here is one packed place.
It is stuffed from floor to ceiling with homey decorations, leather furniture, stacks of snacks, baskets of books, computer work stations, a video library and a constant flow of wounded servicemembers and families.
Every Thursday night, 250 people pack into the 1,200-square-foot room for dinner. Guests spill into the hallways and stairs, and this Thanksgiving dinner promises to be more of the same.
But by Christmas dinner, the feast will feature more leg room.
A new $4 million, 12,000-square-foot facility is slated to open here Dec. 1, boasting its own dining room plus a great room, a classroom, a video game room and, overall, just a lot more room.
And, just like its neighbor, the Center for the Intrepid -- a state-of-the-art, multi-million-dollar rehabilitation facility -- the new building was entirely privately funded and hasn't cost the Army a dime.
"The sky is the limit when we move into that new facility," said retired Army Lt. Gen. Glynn Mallory, who serves on the board that oversaw the fundraising and building project that has taken a little less than two years to come to fruition.
The project was spearheaded as a charitable project by two brothers who own Huffman Developments, a Texas-based building company. In January 2007, Steve Huffman visited the current center, which is housed on the second floor of a guesthouse that serves the families of servicemembers receiving care at BAMC.
Huffman had read about the center, and he asked its manager, Judith Markelz, what it needed. Markelz said she replied that the center needed a video game system to replace one that had been stolen. Huffman agreed to replace the system, promised he would be back in two weeks, and said he wanted to know what else the center needed.
"Think big," he told Markelz.
Estimates for the project were just over $3 million when it started, but the contractor solicited servicemembers' and families' ideas on its construction, and subsequent design changes increased its cost. The building will ring in at about $4 million, and an added therapeutic garden and other landscaping will take the project to nearly $5 million, Markelz said.
One soldier said he wanted grass -- "real" grass, not the brown, coarse kind typical of southern Texas. So, plush St. Augustine grass with a sprinkler system to keep it green was added to the landscaping.
Cookouts are popular, Markelz said, so a barbecue pavilion wired with outdoor stereo speakers now overlooks a harbor and garden.
The soldiers and families wanted a fireplace, so a massive fireplace centers the building's open great room, with its chimney stretching to the height of the cathedral ceiling. The open backside of the fireplace faces an outdoor courtyard so it can be enjoyed outside as well. An 18-foot-high, wrought-iron butterfly sculpture, designed by a soldier recovering here, will spiral up the chimney.
A large video gaming room will feature several large-screen televisions and a drop-down projection screen to accommodate competitions.
A classroom with computers will offer educational opportunities for servicemembers and families. Markelz has a donor lined up willing to pay tuition and books for anyone wanting to advance their education. Several others have volunteered to teach classes there.
"These classes are important, because in some cases, these wounded warriors are looking for a new career," Mallory said.
And the new building will have a large kitchen, which Markelz said she expects to be a main gathering place. The current center does not have a kitchen, and the staff must wash dishes in a bathroom. The new space also will offer room for the three administrative staff members, who now share one desk, one computer and one chair, Markelz said.
Large windows and skylights throughout the building allow light to spill into the center. An open floor plan encourages servicemembers to mingle, and parts of the design are intended to aid wounded servicemember's rehabilitation.
A covered patio allows for recovering servicemembers to be outside without subjecting them to the harsh Texas summer sun. To aid servicemembers' therapy, the outdoor garden will offer varied surface types, ramps with no rails, uneven surfaces and inclines that servicemembers must maneuver through.
"What w're trying to do is emulate things they are going to see at home," said Jennifer Golden, of Golden construction, a subcontractor on the project.
The overall design is built with a Hill Country theme, with rock and stucco throughout and a large star as a centerpiece on the front of the building.
It's very Texas," Mallory said.
Mallory said he was asked to sit on the board because he was always at the center "hugging wounded warriors all the time."
As an infantryman, he served two combat tours in Vietnam. Mallory said this project completes the BAMC complex and is worthy of the sacrifices of the servicemembers and their families.
"They've got two world-class facilities here, in the hospital and the rehabilitation center, and they deserve a world-class facility for socializing and doing what they need to do to rehabilitate," he said.
The center opened in 2003 when Army officials saw a need for a place that focused on helping family members as they arrive to be with their wounded servicemembers.
Markelz said many family members panic when they get the news that their servicemember has been injured, regardless of the severity, and they leave immediately for the hospital. Some arrive even before the servicemember.
"I had a mother get off the airplane the other day with two left shoes on, because when she got that phone call - she put on something and got on that airplane," Markelz said. "She brought no money. No credit card. She brought the clothes on her back."
As of September, nearly 250,000 visitors had used the center.
Markelz said she took the job initially as part of a temporary, six-month deal. Her husband served as the deputy commander of BAMC. Nicknamed "Judith Miracle" by Mallory, Markelz keeps the center running and open every day. It is open for 13 hours daily now, but will expand to 15 hours when it moves to the new facility, she said. Her cell phone is on 24 hours a day.
"We do not close," she said.
Markelz is a former teacher, evidenced by her penchant for the decorations that blanket the room and dangle from the ceilings. An eight-foot-tall inflated turkey rests in the corner.
"We wanted to make it junky and comfortable," she said of her current space. And even though her new space is much larger and somewhat cold right now, she said, she doesn't anticipate it will take her long to redecorate.
The Army pays the salaries of Markelz and her three staff members. Everything else is bought with donated funds, she said. She refers to many of the soldiers as her "kids," and said that helping the families is critical to the recovery of the servicemembers.
"Without these families, these soldiers won't heal. Support is everything," she said.
And while Markelz admitted she will miss her old space, she agreed with Mallory that the servicemembers and families deserve the new building.
"We owe them. They deserve it. It's the right thing to do," she said.