Dispatches From the Third Front: Part II–the Refuge

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Nearly every military installation, from our many stateside posts to larger bases in combat zones, have some form of a Morale, Welfare and Recreation center, what the troops call MWR. At Brooke Army Medical Center, the place of refuge is more than just a recreation center; it’s a central part of their healing and journey home. Our trip through the third front of our current wars–the fight to heal the most seriously wounded troops–began at the Warrior and Family Support Center, an official-sounding name that is, perhaps, literally accurate, but belies its importance for the people here.

The Warrior Family Support Center is a busting place, filled with wounded troops and their families. But the facility was the vision, and was driven from the beginning by one woman, Judith Markelz. Back in 2003, when wounded warriors first began coming in waves from combat in Iraq, the 1000 square foot facility wasn’t going to cut it. She helped design and get the new center built entirely from donations, and since it opened in 2008, the center has seen 600,000 visits. Everything in the place is designed to allow people to gather. The center has two fireplaces, which are rarely used in the stifling south Texas weather. But they, like everything else here, play a crucial role. “This is an Army facility, but it it’s a gathering place,” Markelz said as she showed me around the building. “I wanted a fireplace because that’s where people gather.”

Markelz in a small woman who packs a large wallop as she makes her way around the floor. She moves quickly, rattling off dozens of facts and figures as she greets every wounded warrior by name. The features of the place alone are astonishing. The single floor building has a kitchen where the warriors can cook anything at anytime. Every appliance is Americans with Disabilities Act compliant with low counters, no nobs and no bottons. The stove and oven work with a touch, so that an amputee can use his prosthetic or even the stump of his arm to turn it on. When they want food to cook, Markelz buys it with money from donations. “Food is the universal language,” Markelz said. “At the old facility, we would eat standing on the floor and do dishes in the ladies’ bathroom. Now we serve meals four days a week.”

Donations drive the center. If the wife of a wounded warrior needed diapers for their baby, working through Army channels could take a week. Markelz can get them immediately with money from private donations. There is a man cave with four 54-inch plasma screen TVs, two of which are hooked up with video conferencing so the warriors can talk to their units back in Iraq and Afghanistan. There are comfortable couches and video games, fountains and a butterfly garden. Everything is designed to “replicate the places where you once loved to be and will be again,” Markelz said.

But as much as the center is designed to make the warriors and their families feel at home, the goal, eventually, is to get them to leave, and Markelz focuses a great deal of her abundant energy on making sure they’re prepared when they do. “Plan A was to get married, have kids and see the world,” she said. “We’re on plan B. The young men and women have to get a job and have to go to school.” Part of the center is dedicated to helping the warriors transition from active duty to what they will do once they are healed. But while they are there, the center also helps the warrior’s families deal with the trauma that their service member. “A child didn’t agree to dad coming home looking different and full of anger,” she said of some of the warriors and their children.

Eventually, Markelz knows the warriors will move on to their new normal. But until that day comes, they have a home away from home that is very much her vision, enacted in living form at the heart of the third front.