By Elaine Sanchez, American Forces Press ServiceDecember 6, 2011
SAN ANTONIO ( Dec. 5, 2011) -- It's only 10 a.m., but the Warrior and Family Support Center on Fort Sam Houston here is bustling.
Troops, some in wheelchairs and others heavily scarred, crowd around big-screen TVs to catch the latest sports news in the cavernous, sun-filled front room. In the kitchen up the hall, volunteers load baking sheets into ovens and the smell of fresh-baked cookies begins to waft through the air.
In a nearby craft room, a family gathers for a leather workshop. A triple-amputee Soldier, dressed in jeans and a black cowboy hat, lays out a thin strip of leather onto a table as his brother, also a Soldier, prepares to emboss a design.
The visitors here are a mix of civilian and military, from different backgrounds and services, but all come to the center with the same purpose in mind: to seek solace and support.
"The center is an oasis in the middle of a lot of things going on for [these troops]," said Judith Markelz, director of the Warrior and Family Support Center. "Everybody is welcome here, and no one notices anything. It's a safe zone."
This sprawling, 12,500-square-foot building, which was completely funded through civilian donations, opened in 2008 to offer wounded warriors and their families a place to connect and find emotional support, and to serve as a respite away from the rigors of recovery. It's just steps away from Brooke Army Medical Center, where many combat-wounded service members are treated, and the Center for the Intrepid, a state-of-the art rehabilitation center.
Thanks to individuals and organizations' generosity, the center offers wounded warriors and their families more than 100 free activities each month, including sporting events, movies, plays, concerts, shopping trips, lunches and dinners out, and fishing trips. Inside, it features a learning facility for computerized training, a counseling room, a business center, a video game room, a kids' area, and a craft room popular among both family members and wounded warriors.
This day, military mom Saralee Trimble has stopped by to take a basket-weaving class. The busy work is soothing, she said, as she laid out thin strips of reed, and a healing break away from full-time care of her 19-year-old son, Army Pfc. Kevin Trimble. Her son lost his legs and an arm in a September roadside bomb blast in Afghanistan.
"The center helps you get a break from being hands-on with your Soldier all the time," she said. "It's a place to go during appointments. It's so important. I don't know what I'd do without it."
Trimble said she takes needlepoint projects from here to her son's bedside.
"It fills the many hours I'm there," she said.
The crafts are an asset, but to Markelz, the center's focal point is the well-equipped, spacious kitchen. "Food is the universal language," she said. "And to many of the service members, food is love." Although early, she noted the kitchen already was packed with volunteers cooking breakfast for the troops and their families.
More than 140 volunteers from the community frequent the center to cook, conduct classes or spend time with service members, she said, and there's always a waiting list of more people eager to help.
Each day, donations of food and other items stream through the door. Later on, four ladies would stop by with 40 dozen cookies.
"It's like 'Field of Dreams,'" Markelz said, referring to the 1989 movie. "If you build it, they will come. I think of something we need, and someone walks through my door. I've never had to ask for anything."
When the Texas heat allows, visitors can walk the grounds, taking a path that meanders through a butterfly garden, barbecue pit, water features, and past a soon-to-be unveiled children's playground.
The center's impressive size and offerings belie its more humble beginnings.
Eight years ago, a committee of therapists, physicians and other helping professionals came to Fort Sam Houston's Army Community Service, where Markelz worked at the time, in the hopes of creating a space where wounded warriors and their families could gather and find support. They asked her to run this new center, which they tucked away in conference rooms on the second floor of the Powless Hall Guest House here.
The Soldier and Family Assistance Center opened Dec. 8, 2003, and became an instant hit. But the need for more space soon became evident. As word spread of the center's positive effects, community members looking to help stepped in.
Through donations and the Returning Heroes Home project, the support center moved from a 1,200-square-foot area to its new $5.6 million home, and reopened Dec. 8, 2008.
Next up for the center is Phase 2, also funded through donations. The outdoor therapeutic garden and recreation area is slated to open in March 2012 and will feature a track, beach volleyball, fitness stations and disc golf.
Since the center's early days, Markelz, who is known to many simply as "Mom," has seen thousands of warriors and family members come through its doors. Closest to her heart, she said, are the families of service members who die here and the families of service members who walk out of here with no legs, "but they walk out of here."
These families "become part of my life; all of our lives," she added.
Family members sacrifice everything to be by their loved one's side, Markelz said. "I have never seen anything like this. They lose their jobs, their cars, their medical care, their houses, but when you ask them why, they say the same thing: 'That's what you do for your child.' They are my heroes."
She cited Trimble, the triple-amputee Soldier's mom, as just one example among many. Trimble left her home and her husband behind, and will be here for about two years aiding her son.
"I've never heard her complain," she said. "She's simply grateful her son is alive."
The wars may be drawing down, but that won't mark the end of the need here, Markelz noted. Wounded warriors and their families will continue to need help for years to come.
"We just can't forget these young men and women and their families. They are the best of the best and we owe them, all of them," she said.
As soon as she's done speaking, Markelz rushes off. She has a long list of things to do and a phone that never stops ringing. She wears many hats as director: counselor, friend, mom and, more recently, wedding planner.
A scenic locale out back has become a popular wedding site for wounded warriors, and the center soon will mark its 28th wedding. Each bride gets a new dress -- 61 were donated three years ago -- a bouquet and cake.
"Weddings are a celebration of life," Markelz said. "It goes on."