ST. LOUIS — When Andrew Habsieger was killed while on Army patrol in Iraq earlier this year, his family asked for donations to the St. Louis Fisher House program in lieu of flowers.
Those donations — about $22,000 given in memory of the 22-year-old soldier — are among the contributions helping to advance construction of the program's $5 million facility.
Tentatively expected to open in about a year, the St. Louis Fisher House will provide free lodging to families of soldiers or veterans so they can be near their loved ones receiving medical treatment.
A groundbreaking ceremony was held on Tuesday, Veterans Day, for the new housing at the Jefferson Barracks campus of the St. Louis VA Medical Center.
"It's becoming a reality,'' said Brenda Habsieger, 52, of Festus.
The national Fisher House Foundation is contributing half the cost, with the balance being raised locally. About $1 million in contributions are still needed.
Jim Donahoe, president of the Fisher House in St. Louis Board, spoke of families camping out in lobbies to be near loved ones, or a wife sleeping in a van in a parking lot while her husband received medical care.
He said families want to be together while a loved one receives treatment but that the costs of hotels far from home may make that impossible. That, he said, is where Fisher Houses come in.
More than 40 Fisher Houses are open at military bases and VA medical centers around the country. The St. Louis facility will be a 20-bedroom residence overlooking the Mississippi River, staffed by volunteers.
If a soldier or veteran receives care at the medical center, relatives can stay at Fisher House "because a family's love is good medicine,'' Donahoe said.
A large audience of veterans and community supporters of the project packed an auditorium at Jefferson Barracks for Tuesday's event.
Government funds cannot be used to build such a lodging facility for families, explained Glen Struchtmeyer, director of the St. Louis VA's medical center.
The audience included Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., who said places such as Fisher House often provide families the only means for joining veterans during their recoveries.
Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-Mo., was also in attendance.
"The truth is, military families serve, too,'' Clay said. He noted that the military always pledges it will not leave a soldier behind on the battlefield.
"As a nation, let it be our pledge that when they return home, we will leave no veteran behind,'' Clay said.