Families of Wounded Soldiers Helped by Frequent Fliers

By Jered Ede | July 7, 2008 | 8:22 PM EDT

(CNSNews.com) - Families of U.S. soldiers wounded in the war against terrorism are receiving free airfare so they can be with their loved one through medical rehabilitation and the gifts come from their fellow Americans.

The Fisher House Foundation inaugurated this program in January 2004, which allows average Americans who have accumulated travel miles with a participating airline to donate them to wounded soldiers and their families.

Since the beginning of last year, more than 525 million miles have been donated, resulting in four thousand tickets for the family members of wounded soldiers.

"We go through anywhere from 2.5 million to 3.5 million miles a week," James Weiskopf, vice president of communications at the Fisher House Foundation, told Cybercast News Service.

The Fisher House Foundation's effort follows a similar program initiated in October 2003 by U.S. Rep. "Dutch" Ruppersberger, a Maryland Democrat. Ruppersberger's Hero Miles program allowed frequent fliers to donate airline miles to the soldiers themselves who were trying to get home.

Until last year, Defense Department policy only allowed the government to pay for soldiers to fly to gateway cities. From that point on, the soldiers were responsible for their connecting flights home.

Heather Molino, press secretary for Ruppersberger, told Cybercast News Service that soldiers were often forced to choose between the following: "either put food on the table or fly home for a few weeks. They shouldn't have to make that choice," Molino added. "These women and men are putting their lives on the line for our country."

With Ruppersberger fighting for legislative changes, the Ronald Reagan National Defense Authorization Act was signed by President Bush on Oct. 29, 2004, allowing, among other things, the Defense Department to pay for soldiers' flights all the way home.

The Fisher House Foundation's Weiskopf said there usually isn't much planning before family members get on a plane to be with their loved one during the recuperative period.

"Most tickets are last minute," Weiskopf said, estimating that each ticket costs the airlines about $1,000. The foundation also pays for the airport security fees and taxes, increasing the overall cost of the program thus far to more than $4 million, he said.

Nearly every airline in the United States is participating, according to Weiskopf. Delta Airlines was the first to sign up, but others were quick to join, despite the financial straights that several of them faced at the time.

Some airlines have even offered to match their travelers' donations of frequent flier miles. American Airlines began its July 4 "Spirit of 1776" campaign asking its frequent fliers to donate 17,760,000 miles, pledging to match mile-for-mile each donation until the goal was reached.

"We were encouraged by the generosity of our AAdvantage members," Tim Smith, corporate communications manager for American Airlines, told Cybercast News Service.

After barely a month since the campaign began, American Airlines has exceeded its goal by 10 to 11 million miles, Smith said. "We have a long history of community involvement. It is an ingrained part of our corporate philosophy -- supporting the communities who support us -- but this goes beyond a community. This is a nation."

Zachary Fisher, founder of the organization that bears his name, died in 1999. Fisher "remembered that he was able to prosper in this great country because of the military men and women" who secured his freedoms, Weiskopf said. He felt that "America takes its men and women of the military for granted and doesn't do enough for them."

Today, the foundation's Hero Miles program "brings families and friends to [the soldiers'] bedsides," Weiskopf said. "They needed a support network," and the foundation, he said, has a long history of providing such help.

The Fisher House Foundation also currently operates 33 houses, built to provide inexpensive and sometimes free housing to the families of wounded soldiers.

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