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Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News
VA Medical Center dignitaries perform a ceremonial ground breaking Friday, July 1, 2011, at the VA Medical Center in Salt Lake City for the Fisher House.

SALT LAKE CITY — In a fitting start to the holiday weekend, ground was officially broken Friday for the Utah Fisher House, a home away from home for veterans and their families seeking medical care.

In a ceremony held at the George E. Wahlen Medical Center, representatives posed with glinting shovels in front of the already under way construction site while Penny Jean Tatton sang "God Bless America."

"What's important is not that we're breaking ground, but rather that we're celebrating the reality of a Fisher House at the Salt Lake City VA Health Care System," said system director Steve Young.

Young said crews hope to have the project completed by the next patriotic holiday, Labor Day 2011. He said there is a great need for the home since more than half of the medical center's patients live outside of the Salt Lake Valley, many traveling from the far corners of the Intermountain West.

"I think it's going to be a very active place," Young said.

Derek Donovan, vice president of the Fisher House Foundation, said the new facility will be 16,800 square feet with suites for 20 families. The facility provides free family lodging, through a combination of funding from the Fisher House Foundation and local fundraising, easing the burden for veterans who travel for their treatments.

"It allows the patients to have family members nearby," Donovan said. "At Fisher House we say a family's love is good medicine."

Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, also attended the event, focusing his remarks on the service of the armed forces and the obligation of the nation to care for those individuals who put their lives on the line for others.

"The United States military is the finest in the world," the congressman said. "Their service and dedication allow all of us to sleep securely at night and enjoy the freedom afforded us as American citizens by day."

Utah Fisher House champion Ray Bachillor, a retired Marine Corps colonel, said the Fisher House is a "family-centric environment." He has been largely involved in community fundraising for the project and expressed his gratitude to the community.

"It's amazing how many people have come out of the woodwork to lend their assistance," he said.

Shortly after the groundbreaking, Bachillor was handed a check and shouted, jokingly, over the crowd like an auctioneer.

"American Legion, $500. Do I hear six?"

With the facility being supported, in part, by fundraising, Young said the support of the community is a crucial element in determining where the Fisher House Foundations builds its locations. Organizers have been working since 2007 to bring a Fisher House to Utah, something Young said would have never happened without local support.

"You've got to demonstrate the commitment from the community," Young said. "(Fisher House) saw that here."

According to the Fisher House Foundation website, the program has served more than 142,000 families since 1990, for an estimated savings of $165 million in lodging and transportation costs — $16 million in 2010. There are 54 Fisher Houses operating around the country, with the nearest existing house in Aurora, Colo.

E-mail: benwood@desnews.com