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Center Offers Respite for Wounded Troops, Families

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas, Feb. 9, 2005 – It's just across the parking lot from Brooke Army Medical Center, and yet a world away.

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A soldier and his daughter enjoy the home-baked treats local community groups regularly drop off at the Soldier and Family Assistance Center. Photo by Donna Miles
  

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For troops undergoing medical treatment most for wounds received in Iraq and Afghanistan and their families who have come here to be with them as they recover, the Soldier and Family Assistance Center offers a welcome respite from the hospital environment that's become all too familiar to them.

Tucked away in the post guest house, across the street from the barracks and next door to the Fisher House, the Soldier and Family Assistance Center provides a friendly, comfortable environment where troops and their families can unwind and relax from the stresses of long-term recovery.

They can catch a movie on the big-screen TV, check their e-mail or use the Internet, play a computer game, pick up a book or magazine, make a phone call or just grab a cup of coffee, a bottle of water or a home-baked goodie.

And when they're feeling down, they can always find a sympathetic ear or a reassuring hug. "People can walk in here and cry and laugh and make a friend," said Judy Markelz, the center's director, called simply "Mom" by troops and family members at the center.

Army Col. Edward Maney, chaplain for Fort Sam Houston, said the center goes a long way in helping wounded troops and their families through a difficult period. "They've done of phenomenal job of facilitating the healing process," he said.

Army Staff Sgt. Michele Mitchell, who has undergone treatment at Brooke since she was wounded in Iraq last April, agrees that the center is "very therapeutic" to her and her fellow outpatients at the hospital, as well as their families. "This is a great outlet," said Mitchell, who visits the center regularly between medical treatments. "It's a place where you can relax and get away from the stress of being (at the hospital)."

"Plus," Mitchell said, "we do a lot of fun things here."

Markelz works to keep the center's activities calendar chock-full. She sponsors weekly bingo games and quilting classes, runs special activities like picnics and parties, and is putting together plans for a casino night.

She also runs regular off-post excursions that give families a chance to shop or get manicures. "It's amazing to see the transition that takes place within a block of leaving the gate," she said. "Suddenly they become the people they were before they got that phone call that wasn't supposed to come (that their loved one had been wounded)."

Army Pfc. Daniel Almonaci, who was wounded by a suicide bomber in Ramadi, Iraq, last November, calls time spent at the center and through its activities a welcome respite from the four walls of his barracks or his medical treatments. "I come here to hang out," he said. "They have everything you could want here TV, computers, snacks. It's a pretty good place."

Army Spc. Traci Williams said the support she's found at the center has offered her far more than an interesting diversion from her medical treatments. "Without them, I would not have made it," she said of the staff and fellow patients at the center. "This is a great place, but it's the people who make it so special. They've become my family."

Stepping into the center, festively decorated for Valentine's Day, it's hard to imagine its barebones beginnings. Markelz recalls opening the facility just over a year ago with borrowed furniture, old computers and a coffee pot from the post's lending closet.

Since then, she said she's witnessed "incredible support" from the local community for the center and the wounded troops and their families that it serves.

Local businesses, churches, schools and residents donated a big-screen TV and DVD player, boxes of DVDs, video games, books, magazines, and toys for children and regularly deliver a mouth-watering array of baked goods and snacks.

Markelz is on the lookout for new furniture for the facility, but insists that whatever she gets "has to look like it belongs in a living room, not a waiting room."

While helping make the center as comfortable as possible, local donors also provide a much-needed outlet for troops and their families, some of whom have been here for more than a year. They drop off tickets to the NBA's Spurs basketball games and other sporting events, sponsor group dinners at local restaurants and even donated 50 box seats to the popular San Antonio Rodeo.

"I couldn't exist without this community," said Markelz, marveling at the fact that "donations fall in my lap" to support the center.

Except for Markelz, the only paid staffer, the center is run completely by volunteers, and there's a waiting list for others who want to join them. After duty hours, soldiers from the Medical Holding Company keep the center open until as late as 10 each night.

Army Spc. Travis Kennedy, assigned to the Medical Holding Company here while he completes his medical treatment, said he enjoys staffing the center at night so he can offer distraught family members "a shoulder to cry on."

"Being (in the hospital) wears on you after a while," said Kennedy. "That's why it's important for me to be here, to help the families."

Thera Frentz, who came to the Fort Sam Houston to serve as "a motivator, a cheerleader and a nurse" for her twin sister, Air Force 1st Lt. Therese Frentz, who is being treated for wounds received in Baghdad last October, calls the support she's found at the Soldier and Family Assistance Center a godsend.

"You feel like a family member to everyone here," she said. "I've learned a lot about life and compassion through the actions of the people who work here."

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Related Sites:
Brooke Army Medical Center

Click photo for screen-resolution imageArmy Spc. Traci Williams said the support she's found at the Soldier and Family Assistance Center helped her through her cancer treatments. Photo by Donna Miles  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageWounded troops being treated at Brooke Army Medical Center help pass the time playing computer games at the Soldier and Family Assistance Center. Photo by Donna Miles  
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