American Legion serving veterans and their families

Audrey Thomsen didn’t know where to turn.

Her brother, Richard Osborne, was in the Veteran’s Medical Center on Beacon Hill for an emergency procedure to remove his right kidney.

Thomsen and her sister, Eleanor Evans, live in Lacey, Wash., and are both in their 80s. They don’t have much money and they don’t know their way around Seattle. They weren’t sure how they would be able to cope while caring for their brother.

“We have no car and no family here in Seattle,” Thomsen said. “What would we do? We expected to just sleep at the hospital the first night and then try to figure something out from there.”

Such situations are one reason why the Fisher House and local American Legion organizations were created.

Thomsen said that when she arrived at the VA hospital, a social worker talked with her and before she knew it, she was told that Thomsen and Evans would be guests at the Fisher House and they could stay as long as they liked.

The Fisher House is only a few steps away from the doors of Seattle’s VA Hospital and may be the best-kept secret among military families. This is no military barracks. The five-year-old building resembles a Marriott Hotel, with beautifully appointed rooms, warm lighting, handsome furniture and a state-of-the-art kitchen.

Developed and supported by real estate magnate and philanthropist Zachary Fisher, the Fisher House Foundation now supports 54 houses around the world. The Veterans Administration builds the houses, such as the one in South Seattle, but citizens and veterans have donated all the furnishings, food and items inside the home. A small staff runs the home, but all meals are prepared and served by volunteers.

The idea behind the homes is that because members of the military and their families are stationed worldwide and must often travel great distances for specialized medical care, Fisher House Foundation donates “comfort homes,” built on the grounds of major military and VA medical centers. These homes enable family members to be close to a loved one at the most stressful times - during the hospitalization for an unexpected illness, disease, or injury.

As Thomsen ate her turkey dinner this late December evening, she marveled at the accommodations proved her and her sister.

“I sure didn’t expect anything like this,” Thomsen said. “I just can’t say enough about how well everyone has treated us.”

In the kitchen volunteers from the American Legion Post 123 Magnolia and American Legion Post 40 Ballard are carving the pies donated by the Whole Foods grocery store on 15th Avenue West. In fact, Magnolia resident and veteran Bert Lundh said that Whole Foods also donated the turkey, ham, salad, mashed potatoes and everything else that was part of the evening’s feast. 

On other occasions, Lundh said Albertsons, QFC and Thriftway donated the groceries used at the Fisher House when the Magnolia Post was in charge of the meal. Other times, veterans just show up at the Fisher House armed with items to donate.

The Legion volunteers ask grocery stores to donate the food, and then they prepare it and serve it to those staying at the Fisher House.

For Shauna Hurn and Nancy Stiffarm, the Fisher House has been a blessing. Their husbands are in the medical center for various treatments. Hurn was at the home for six days and was hoping to be home in Spokane for Christmas, but she didn’t know. Stiffarm, whose husband was receiving treatment for ALS had just arrived the day before and still seemed to be in a state of shock.

“When I heard about it, I expected this place to be a dormitory or something,” Stiffarm said. “But just look at this place. It’s fabulous.”

That type of response makes Magnolia volunteers and veterans like Paul Whitfield, Joyce Ditore, Tom McKoy and Peter Lawrence know the work they are doing is worthwhile.

However, the Fisher House is only one of many volunteer projects that the Magnolia American Legion Post is involved with. Whitfield, the First District Commander for the American Legion, which is mainly the Seattle area, said the mission of the Legion, is a simple one: to serve veterans.

The motto for the Magnolia American Legion post is summed up in the acronym S.A.V.E.D., which stands for “Serve American Veterans Every Day”.

Whitfield knows that some veterans and members of the general public might think of the American Legion as just a group of aging men sitting around telling war stories. Not so. He said that his post works hard to help veterans with the problems they face each and every day.

For those newly back from serving their country, Whitfield said they help veterans answer questions ranging from how to receive Veterans Administration benefits to how to find a job.

Older veterans with young families may not have the time to be active members of their local American Legion Post, but they have needs too and the Legion can help. They can give advice to veterans who are considering buying a home, for instance, or going back to school to learn new skills.

The Legion can also be of service for those veterans who are retiring.

“Where we shine is in the Veterans Administration Hospital system,” Whitfield said of the Magnolia post. “We help people through the process.”

Whitfield and Lundh both said the local post also works with the Moyer Foundation’s Camp Erin, which is a camp for kids and young adults who have lost a parent in Afghanistan or Iraq. The Post is a major supporter of local scouting troops and the Boys and Girls State programs, which are summer leadership and citizenship programs sponsored by the American Legion. They also take part in many local programs.

Whitfield is passionate about the need to hire veterans, especially in light of the fact that about 250,000 veterans are expected to be coming home in the next year or so.

“They know discipline, the chain of command, how to complete a task with a sense of urgency,” Whitfield said. “You can teach them the job, they understand how to get things done.”

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