America Supports You: Americans Donate Sky Miles to Wounded Troops
By Terri Lukach
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Aug. 8, 2005 Through partnerships with most major U.S. carriers, the Fisher House Foundation is making it possible for Americans to donate unused airline miles to troops wounded in the war on terror and their families.
The program, "Operation Hero Miles," was created in 2004, when nearly 500 soldiers per day were returning to the U.S. from Iraq for rest and recuperation.
"At that time, the military would only fly service personnel to a gateway city," said Pamela Lea-Maida, administrator of Operation Hero Miles at the Fisher House Foundation. "From there, personnel had to pay the rest of their own way home. Today, soldiers are not allowed to be stuck in one place or another. The military quickly realized they needed to get troops all the way home," she said. There was also an increasing need to unite families with recuperating personnel who may have been sent to a major medical facility far from home, she said. In certain circumstances the military will supply round-trip airfare to immediate family members of wounded servicemembers. "Of course, today we have unique families. We bring in sisters to support brothers, aunts who brought up their nephew." All of the donated miles may be used to fly family members to hospital facilities or to fly military members who are well enough home for a visit.
Lea-Maida praised the airlines, saying, "Our airline partners have been just phenomenal. We could want to do this, but without a full team behind us and with us, it just wouldn't happen."
She also credits Mary Jo Myers, wife of Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, with being the catalyst for the program.
Mrs. Myers was visiting at Walter Reed Army Medical Center here when she overheard a tearful mother tell her son that she wasn't sure she could come back again to visit him, even though he would be recuperating for a very long time, Lea-Maida explained. Mrs. Myers asked the mother why she couldn't come back, and the mother replied that she simply didn't have the resources to buy the airline ticket.
"Well, I have dividend miles," the general's wife reportedly responded. "I'll give them to you."
Working with Maryland Congressman Dutch Ruppersberger, Mrs. Myers, the airlines, and the Fisher House Foundation developed a program that piggybacked on a recent move by members of Congress to donate their frequent flyer miles to wounded warriors.
The list of airlines that are participating in Operation Hero Miles or have participated in the past includes: Northwest Airlines, Independence Air, Delta Airlines, US Airways, America West Airlines, Alaska Airlines, Continental, Southwest, Air Tran, United, Pan-Am, Frontier, United, and American Airlines, which is running a mile-for-mile matching program.
Miles must be donated first to the Fisher House Foundation. Lea-Maida then works with the airlines and the families to find the best match. She estimates that each flight provided by the foundation is worth approximately $1,000.
Lea-Maida also had high praise for the American people who are "anxious to do something" for the troops. "For example," she said, "some corporate executives who accumulate lots of sky miles divide up the miles between their families and the troops. Their attitude is 'one for me, one for my country,'" she said.
Explaining that kind of support, she said, "Today, a soldier serving in the war on terror is not someone from a far off military base, he's the man who serviced your air conditioner, he's the policeman on the corner, the fireman down the street, he's your neighbors and friends who stepped up to the plate in huge numbers.
"No matter what your stand on the war, whether you were for it or against it, that young man who is a Guardsman down the street. His mom is your neighbor, and how can you not want to support that?
"I talked to one elderly lady who had a ... credit card that offered dividend miles. She told me she spent a whole day researching what she could do to help the military when she found out about our program. She immediately called Delta airlines and had them open up a dividend miles account for her and then she donated all of her accumulated ... miles to us.
"When she called me and I could just hear her beaming," Lea-Maida said. "I told her I almost felt bad because I know how quickly her miles would be used up. She replied, 'It's exactly what I want to do.' That's the greatest generation supporting this new generation of American heroes."
The Fisher House Foundation is a nonprofit organization that provides a home away from home for families of military personnel receiving medical care at military and Veterans Affairs hospitals across the country.
There are 33 such homes or "Fisher Houses" on the grounds of major military and VA medical centers. Typically, the houses provide from eight to 11 suites for visiting family members in a home-like setting that includes a kitchen, dining room, living room and laundry. The average cost of lodging is $10 per day, although some Fisher Houses provide the accommodations without charge.
Lea-Maida said administering Operation Hero Miles is a demanding job but also very rewarding. "When I leave each night, I know that, to the best of my ability, every request has been answered," she said.