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Lee Benson
Joann and Jerry Hornbeck of Higley, Ariz., enjoy breakfast in the Fisher House dining room. Joann stayed at the Fisher House for free while Jerry underwent heart surgery.
I'll tell you, you come up here, your husband's dying, you know no one, you have nowhere to stay, and then you find an absolute Godsend. It's just an unbelievable thing. —Joann Hornbeck

SALT LAKE CITY — Joann Hornbeck's first thought was that she had made a wrong turn somewhere.

She had just finished getting Jerry, her husband, checked into the VA Medical Center, where he was scheduled to have open heart surgery, when she was told about a place nearby called the Fisher House where they would put her up during Jerry's hospitalization.

She thought she'd followed the directions perfectly, but when she opened the door …

"I'm telling you, I walked in and thought Wow! I'm in the wrong place," she says.

In front of her were the kind of elegant furnishings you'd find at the Plaza, or the Mayflower, or the Grand America.

And that wasn't the most unbelievable part.

That came when they told her the price: absolutely free.

For a minute there, Joann, whose hometown is tiny Higley, Ariz., thought she might need heart surgery herself.

The place she'd stumbled into was Salt Lake City's brand-spanking-new Fisher House, the 58th such edifice in a selfless chain that stretches from sea to shining sea. Each Fisher House is located adjacent to a veterans medical facility and the house rules are simple: the rooms are available to family members of veterans while they are hospitalized. Free of charge. No time limit.

The first Fisher House opened in 1991 in Maryland. Salt Lake's opened this past Jan. 9. It's located just around the corner from the George E. Wahlen VA Medical Center on what used to be a neglected baseball field and now looks like a page out of Better Homes & Gardens.

The impetus for Salt Lake's project came from a retired Marine colonel named Ray Bachiller who first moved to Utah in 2002 to coordinate military security for the Winter Olympics. One day in 2006 Ray was visiting soldiers at the VA Medical Center when he noticed a woman sleeping in a chair next to her vet brother whom she'd come to visit. The colonel made inquiries and discovered that a) it was against hospital rules for the woman to sleep in a bed, and b) she had nowhere else to go.

"That pretty well got this going," says Ray in his understated way as he conducts an informal tour of the Fisher House.

Contacted at its headquarters in Maryland, the Fisher House Foundation took care of every deal, including sending its own construction crew to Salt Lake City. They broke ground on May 17, 2011, and the 33,000-foot, 20-room house was ready for inspection on Nov. 10, the Marine Corps' birthday, appropriately enough. The grand opening came just two months later.

If houses had a star system like hotels, the Fisher House would get five stars.

"When they hear 'military' people probably think of stark barracks and metal beds," says Ray as he points out luxuries like HD televisions in every room and plush chairs and couches in the lobby. "And then they find this. It's first class all the way. It's a way of saying thank you for your service."

The house's namesake is the late Zachary Fisher, who made his fortune in the construction business and gave as much away as possible to veterans and their needs, including the initial donation that established the Fisher House fund in 1990.

The houses have been built at a three-a-year pace ever since. The Fisher House Foundation takes the lead, but much of the funding for upkeep and management comes from local volunteers and charitable donations.

A fundraising golf tournament for Salt Lake's Fisher House will be held Friday, Sept. 14, at Stonebridge Golf Course in West Valley City. Sponsored by Knights of Columbus, "Foursomes for Fisher House" will raise funds to buy golf carts to help shuttle family members back and forth from the medical center. (You can register online at https://sjb-parish.weshareonline.org).

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"When people see what's happening here they want to get involved," says Bachiller.

Joann and Jerry Hornbeck would second that. Even as Jerry, a 70-year-old Vietnam War veteran, was recovering from his open-heart surgery in Salt Lake, Joann and Jerry's daughter and granddaughter in Denver were already volunteering at the Fisher House there.

"It's incredible, the service they provide," says Joann. "I'll tell you, you come up here, your husband's dying, you know no one, you have nowhere to stay, and then you find an absolute Godsend. It's just an unbelievable thing."

Email: benson@desnews.com