Five decades before Sweeney became the president of the foundation that would raise millions of dollars to construct two Fisher Houses in Cleveland, he fought in a controversial war as a sergeant within the 11th Brigade, Americal Division. As a 22-year-old raised in a military family, Sweeney rode helicopters over the jungles of Vietcong as he dodged machine gun fire. He lost friends, slept on sandbags, endured artillery fire five days a week. Though Sweeney speaks rarely in detail of his wartime years — which earned him a Bronze Star — he’s unafraid to capture its severity in brief.
“Every war sucks,” he said. “Plain and simple. It’s cruel. It’s arbitrary. Only the truly lucky ones come out of combat. It’s a special experience, I can tell you that.”
After a two-decade career as a deep-voiced news anchor for Baltimore’s WMAR and, later, Cleveland’s WKYC Channel 3, Sweeney retired in 1992 to care for his boys, Tuck and Connor.
Come 2011, Sweeney was asked by Susan Fuehrer, the director of the Louis Stokes Cleveland VA, to spearhead a special team to raise funds for the first Fisher House suites in the area. Sweeney was taken aback: He’d never heard of the concept.
“I had no idea what the hell she was talking about,” he said. “Why would I? They weren’t around when I was in uniform.”
Although the first Fisher House opened up 25 years ago at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., the push for improved psychiatric care for returning vets has long been a conundrum in the United States. “Shell shocked” soldiers who survived mortar shrapnel in World War I were occasionally sent back into combat if their disorder was deemed “nervous” — an emotional collapse — and not a physical wound. By the time President Richard Nixon had resigned, psychiatrists were just starting to analyze Vietnam vets for signs of physically manifested trauma, though it would take another decade for the American Psychiatric Association to add “post-traumatic stress disorder” to the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders,” in 1980.
Soldiers were finally being understood. Yet, still, there was an entity widely left out of DSM mental diagnoses: their families.
In 1990, while the VA was starting to treat polytrauma via the neurologically focused Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing treatment, Zachary Fisher, an 80-year-old owner of the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum, shifted gears to found an organization of military “comfort homes,” all under the belief that “a family’s love is the best medicine.” (Vets families were also, Fisher noticed, sleeping on VA couches.)
Seventy-two Fisher Houses would pop up globally, though not in Cleveland. Most today are near military bases and VA medical centers, and operate as state-of-the-art, 16-suite hotels fashioned with modern-designed interiors, full kitchens, play rooms and lasagna dinners.
“It’s a holistic approach to reintegration,” said Dr. Joseph Baskin, a psychiatrist at the Cleveland Clinic who worked for the Louis Stokes Cleveland VA for 12 years. “But it’s certainly not a one-size-fits-all. I’m sure there are some people who might be better off apart, who don’t want to impose on their families.”
Published at Sat, 02 Sep 2017 08:00:00 +0000