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Fisher House steps up for military families, yet again

By Greg Botelho, CNN
November 4, 2013 -- Updated 1832 GMT (0232 HKT)
Zachary Fisher never served in the military, but he and his foundations have been helping military families and retirees since the 1970s.
Zachary Fisher never served in the military, but he and his foundations have been helping military families and retirees since the 1970s.
  • New York developer Zachary Fisher was a prominent philanthropist
  • Many of his efforts supported troops and veterans, like the Fisher House
  • That organization offers to pay death benefits to families of slain troops

(CNN) -- Born in Brooklyn, Zachary Fisher got into the construction business at age 16. And he kept on building -- not just a business, but a reputation as one of America's most generous donors to troops and veterans.

Fisher died in June 1999, but he and his family continue to have an impact through the Fisher House Foundation. This organization has stepped up, time and again, to help those who are serving or have served in the military.

And it's doing so again -- for the family members of those who die while serving.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced Wednesday that, sometime the day before, the Fisher House Foundation offered to make payments to relatives of fallen service members that have not been given out due to the partial government shutdown.

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The announcement came just after the U.S. House of Representatives voted unanimously to resume paying survivor benefits, which includes a $100,000 payment.

Until a congressional agreement is finalized, the foundation will guarantee survivors "the full set of benefits they have been promised, including a $100,000 death gratuity payment," according to Hagel.

Pentagon strikes deal with charity to pay military death benefits

Whenever the government fully reopens -- or if the governments acts, in some other way before then -- the foundation will be reimbursed. The nonprofit groups relies heavily on donations.

It's offer to fill a breach is consistent with the organization's efforts for decades to do right by U.S. military families.

Zachary Fisher never served in the military; a leg injury prevented him from enlisting in World War II, according to his official biography. Yet he helped the effort in other ways, including helping to build coastal fortifications.

In the 1970s, he took his military-minded philanthropy to a new level. That includes, in 1978, helping save the Intrepid aircraft carrier and making it the focal point of a floating military museum off Manhattan along the Hudson River.

Four years later, the Zachary and Elizabeth M. Fisher Armed Services Foundation was born. This group did what its modern-day incarnation is doing now: giving to those hurt in the line of duty, including victims of the 1983 bombing of a Marine barracks in Beirut.

The Fisher House program started in 1990, at which time its founder was 80 years old. It quickly grew into the Fisher family's biggest philanthropic effort yet, providing homes at bases and veterans affairs facilities around the United States and in Germany.

According to its website, the organization has served more than 180,000 current and former military families since its inception -- including about 19,000 last year.

Hospitals or military commanders decide who stay at the 62 Fisher Houses, which typically contain eight to 21 suites and can house 16 to 42 people at a time. Tenants remain for 10 days on average, though those injured in combat might stay for months.

Wherever they're staying, for however long, the cost is the same: $0. The organization pays for all of it, estimating it has saved families (and the military) more than $200 million in lodging and transportation costs in the process.

This and other efforts haven't gone unrecognized. Fisher also helped set up a child development center at Camp Pendleton, partnered with David Rockefeller to create the Fisher Center for Alzheimer's Research and supported other causes such as the Metropolitan Opera, United Jewish Appeal and George C. Marshall Foundation.

Five presidents honored Fisher for his philanthropy, including Bill Clinton who awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998.

Said then-Defense Secretary of Defense William Cohen one year later, after Fisher's death: "His contributions will live on, and his legacy will be generations of gratitude from America's military community."

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