Home to offer free temporary housing to military families
By Kalene McCort
Photographs by Josh Norris
In any major metropolitan city, it isn’t unlikely to spot a man on a street corner begging for change — his weather-beaten hands, doused with urban grime, clenching a tattered cardboard sign that bears the words “Wounded Vet.” Many walk by, clutching their morning coffee, not wanting to make eye contact with this soldier. Perhaps it’s human nature to ignore that which we find uncomfortable and troubling.
“Support Our Troops” is often belted out at rallies and displayed on bumper stickers, but what about the much-needed support these men and women require when they return home? Where do they turn when the pitfalls of war have wreaked havoc on their emotional wellbeing, and costly treatment of injuries has left them financially unstable? Kiawah Island, South Carolina, resident Durbin Emerson is working toward improving the lives of veterans with the Fisher House — a facility that will serve as a temporary haven for veterans and their families to stay while receiving medical care in Charleston.
“Military service has a tremendous impact on entire families and certainly takes a toll, even in the best of circumstances,” Emerson said. “We owe the veteran, the mother, father, sister, brother, son and daughter our gratitude, and if there is some small thing we can do to make their lives better, we owe them that, too. Without the sacrifices our military families since Vietnam have volunteered to make, this country and probably the world would be a much different place, less free and less safe.”
While Durbin and her husband, Trux, have no military background, they have seen firsthand the hardships veterans face. On a crisp fall day in 1982, Emerson found herself driving by The National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. She lived just outside in Alexandria, Virginia, and was on her way to take her two daughters home after getting haircuts. She knew that day the names of soldiers who lost their lives would be read aloud at the cathedral as part of a memorial.
Despite an exhausted 3-year-old and 7-month-old, rainy weather and the idea of dinner lurking in the back of her mind, she pulled her car over and entered the grand doors with her young children in tow. Securing a seat, she listened, emotion-filled and sorrowful. After a few minutes, President Reagan and his wife made their way down the aisle and sat a few rows in front of Emerson. On this November day, she not only felt a part of history, but she also was left with the overwhelming desire to serve, give back, and honor the brave.
“Both my husband and I spent our high school and college years during the height of the Vietnam War, and it was a miserable time, but not because we were swept up in all of the protests, but because we supported our supposed goal of defeating communism and believing then, as now, that war should be fought to be won, and our soldiers should have every type of support they need to make that possible,” Emerson said. “I have always believed in thanking every person I see in uniform, something I have been doing for as long as I can remember.”
The biggest form of gratitude Emerson can give them will come in the form of a completed Fisher House. Currently, a historic property at 150 Wentworth Street in downtown Charleston is receiving a serious overhaul, and before long it will be the site where 16 families of wounded veterans can stay. The Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center is one of the most highly rated facilities in the country, serving over 4,500 a year from 22 coastal communities.
It makes perfect sense to have a Fisher House in a city that treats numerous veterans with top-notch care. Accommodations in the tourist destination of Charleston can often be hard to come by, not to mention well over a family’s budget. That’s why having a facility such as this nearby is essential to the wellbeing of patients and their families. Often family members of a treated vet have to resort to either sleeping their vehicle or in the patient’s hospital room.
Emerson’s decision to spearhead the Fisher House Charleston started after a day of putting on a green. Back in 2012, she and Trux attended a golf tournament to benefit The Wounded Warrior Project. At the event, she was introduced to General James Livingston, who is now a board member of the Fisher House Charleston. He explained to the Emersons the dire need for bringing a facility that housed family members of injured vets to Charleston, and they couldn’t pass up this opportunity to give back to a cause that would help the service men and women they had revered for decades.
“Over a sandwich, we went from having a simple fundraising golf tournament for a veterans’ organization we were familiar with, to committing ourselves to raising what we estimated would take a minimum $10 million to build something we knew very little about,” Emerson said. “I like to think I would have made a good soldier — when a general and a Congressional Medal of Honor recipient asks you to do something, you say, ‘Yes, sir!’”
The outpouring of community support for the Fisher House Charleston has been substantial. From fraternities at The College of Charleston to Washington Light Infantry, numerous organizations, near and far, have come together to support this just cause. Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg, who was present for the property’s groundbreaking ceremony, has praised the Fisher House Charleston for its dedication to bettering the lives of those who sacrifice so much.
“As of this past March, Fisher House Charleston, LLC successfully retired all of the debt that made the purchase of the property at 150 Wentworth Street possible,” Emerson said. “But, that does not mean we are finished with our financial needs. There is an existing historic carriage house on the property that we knew we would ultimately be required to restore. We are now in the preliminary process of developing plans for that restoration with the help of Skip Wallace, Mark Regalbuto and Erika Hayes who will help transform what is now a barely standing structure into a charming retreat that will become a truly unique addition to the complex.”
Studies show that having family members close by when being treated for various injuries can actually jumpstart the recovery process. There’s nothing quite like having a support system nearby to offer you motivation, comfort, and strength when facing some of the most intense, debilitating pain of your lifetime.
“Working on Fisher House Charleston has truly been a life-changing experience,” Emerson said. “We have been so fortunate to meet some of the finest people that I do not think we would have encountered in our previous life. I get up each day with the wonderful feeling of knowing that there is a purpose in what we are doing that I never had before. It makes all of the hard work satisfying, and as we get to begin to see progress with the actual construction of a dream, I cannot tell you how exciting that is!”
In 2018, Fisher House Charleston will welcome families into the clean, bright, warm 14,425 square feet of living space — the finished product of a labor of love six years in the making. From food to bed linens and shower towels, everything will be provided for them. The Fisher House will truly be a home away from home, complete with all the amenities to make a stay not only comfortable but re-energizing.
“Nothing will be better than seeing the first guests of Fisher House Charleston come through our doors,” Emerson said. “We have heard so many stories about the families who have been so blessed by their Fisher House experience. I cannot wait until we have those stories about Fisher House Charleston!”
From crying as a little girl at the war scene in “Gone With the Wind” to now, sitting with mothers whose sons are Purple Heart recipients and listening to them recount their experiences, Emerson has always had a strong empathetic nature — one that supersedes obstacles put in her way. From scouting out the land where Fisher House Charleston will be to organizing fundraising initiatives to solidify this dream, Emerson won’t stop until she sees this project come to fruition. Once the paint dries on the exterior and the landscaping is planted, Emerson looks forward to leading families up to their quarters, giving them the full tour and eliminating their uncertainty of room and board while in The Holy City.
“Fisher House Charleston was something that was destined to be, at some point, one way or another,” Emerson said. “Trux and I just happened to come along at the right time, and had there not been that special guiding force that kept pushing us forward, I’m not sure where we would be now. I believe in miracles and in angels that make them happen.”
For more information about Fisher House Charleston, including ways to get involved, visit fisherhousecharleston.org.