In the four years since the Center for the Intrepid (CFI) opened at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio to benefit wounded warriors suffering the loss of a limb or severe burn injuries, the world-class physical rehabilitation facility has treated an average of 140 patients a week. The four-story, 65,000-square-foot outpatient facility features the latest techniques in physical and occupational therapy — including virtual reality training, a motion analysis lab, vehicle and firearms simulators, and a wave machine — designed to help injured service members regain the ability to live and work productively.
Individualized case management, access to behavioral medicine, and in-house prosthetic fitting and fabrication all contribute to the center’s goal of helping amputee and burn patients return to the highest levels of physical and emotional function.
Just as impressive as the CFI’s leading edge treatment and equipment is the unique partnership that created the center. Funds for the $55 million facility were donated by more than 600,000 Americans through the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund, a nonprofit established in 2003 to continue an effort begun by the founders of the Intrepid Museum Foundation, Zachary and Elizabeth Fisher, to offer financial assistance to the families of military personnel lost in action. After legislation was enacted in 2005 substantially increasing the benefits available to these families, the fund redirected its efforts to support catastrophically disabled service members.
In January 2007, a 16-month fundraising effort culminated in a dedication ceremony for the CFI, attended by more than 3,200 guests including the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the deputy secretary of defense and the secretaries of the Army and Veterans Affairs Department. At that time, the fund turned over the center to the Army. Within two weeks, the CFI accepted its first patients as a component of Brooke Army Medical Center.
Four years later, CFI Director Col. Jennifer Menetrez is eager to testify to the invaluable role the center plays in caring for wounded personnel. “We’ve resurrected lives,” said Menetrez, a physical medicine and rehabilitation physician.
She is equally amazed at the number of patients who have decided to live in San Antonio after their treatment is completed and they have been discharged from the military. “That tells me we’ve succeeded. We’ve really helped them. It’s really very gratifying,” she noted.
“This is an unbelievable facility,” added Arnold Fisher, who spearheaded the project and is the honorary chairman of the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund. He is the nephew of Zachary Fisher.
‘Built by the American People’
When the fund shifted its focus in 2005, outfitting wounded service members with prosthetics and offering advanced rehabilitation had become one of the military’s most pressing needs, Fisher said. After learning that a project to build an amputee care center at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington had stalled, Fisher asked what the fund could do to help. Rather than supporting the Walter Reed effort, Army officials suggested the fund construct a similar facility at Brooke Army Medical Center.
“We could do it at half the cost, twice the quality and half the time,” Fisher said.
In the spring of 2005, then-Secretary of the Army Francis Harvey accepted the fund’s offer to build and hand over the facility, and a groundbreaking was held in September 2005. The Army transferred a small parcel at Fort Sam Houston to the fund for the duration of construction.
Gaining approval from DOD for the project was frustrating at times, but, ultimately, the CFI went ahead. “America just said, ‘We are going to do it,’” he said.
The fund hired architectural and construction firms, and Fisher, a real estate executive, oversaw the entire effort. The center was designed in collaboration with the Army.
Most of the CFI’s contributors were ordinary Americans. Less than 10 percent were wealthy donors and organizations; the largest single donation was for $10 million. The fund’s philosophy was to treat all donors equally, and, as a result, no wings or distinct components of the center are named after individuals or organizations.
In conjunction with the CFI, the Fisher House Foundation — a separate nonprofit created by the Fisher family — built two Fisher Houses at Sam Houston for the families of personnel undergoing treatment to stay during visits. The two new Fisher Houses gave the post a total of four.
A ‘Happy Place’
Service members come to the CFI for outpatient rehabilitation after they are discharged from the hospital and stay in nearby housing on post during their treatment. Patients undergo several hours of therapy each day. Menetrez described the center as a beautiful, light-filled place where camaraderie quickly develops among patients.
“Patients want to come here,” she said.
The CFI — which is open to active-duty personnel from all services — is staffed by active-duty Army personnel, Army civilians and contractors, and a small number of Veterans Affairs employees.
“Our patients will be their patients one day, and we want the transition to be as smooth as possible,” Menetrez said in reference to the need for Veterans Affairs staff.
The fund furnished the center with a variety of state-of-the-art treatment facilities, including:
- a computer assisted rehabilitation environment which provides virtual reality training through a 21-foot simulated dome with a 360-degree scan that immerses patients using sensors and high-speed infrared cameras and a moving platform;
- a motion analysis lab which allows specialists to detect slight deviations in a patient’s gait;
- a firearms training simulator which reacquaints patients with their weapons systems;
- a daily living apartment for practicing everyday skills; and
- a driving simulator which allows patients missing a limb to adjust to driving.
One of the most valuable devices, according to Menetrez, is the Flowrider, a wave machine that promotes balance, core strength training and excitement. The wave simulator allows patients to practice lying and kneeling on a boogie board. “It really builds their confidence. … [And] it’s really a lot of fun,” she said.
The cost of acquiring additional equipment is the responsibility of the Army, but the fund might step in to cover it. The center also conducts research in orthopedics, prosthetics and physical and occupational rehabilitation.
Last June, the fund presented the military with a second rehabilitation facility, the National Intrepid Center of Excellence at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. The $65 million facility is devoted to researching, diagnosing and treating service members with traumatic brain injury and psychological conditions. The fund’s board of directors soon will decide whether to embark on a third project. If the board approves a new effort, it would address a different need of the military, said Fisher, who also was the driving force behind the Bethesda center.
Fisher has constructed many buildings during his career, but said he felt more satisfaction in visiting the construction site of the CFI than he ever felt about any of his own buildings. Still, he looks forward to the time when there no longer is a need to treat thousands of the nation’s young men and women military volunteers with traumatic injuries.
“I’d like these facilities to become garages,” Fisher said.
For more information about the IFHF, visit www.fallenheroesfund.org.
The ADC 2011 Winter Forum will be offering a tour of the CFI on the afternoon of Monday, Feb. 14. If you are interested in participating in the mobile workshop, visit the Winter Forum website to sign up.