Open Homes: Giving back to veterans and military families
It’s no exaggeration to say that military service runs in Ashlee Wajer’s family. Her dad is an Air Force veteran who impressed upon all his children the rewards of serving one’s country. Ashlee enlisted in the Montana Air National Guard at age 17, right out of high school, and at one point, five of her immediate family members — Ashlee, her two brothers, her dad and stepmother — were all serving in the state’s Air National Guard. This Veterans Day, we’re highlighting Ashlee and her family because she also happens to be an Open Homes guest.
A few years after her initial enlistment, Ashlee started to notice strange bruises on her arms and legs but wasn’t sure if she should worry. “I’m a pretty active person — I hunt and fish and camp, do all kinds of outdoorsy things and am pretty independent.” But the next time she tried to give blood, she was told her hemoglobin level was too low to donate.
Cut to January 2016 — many months, doctors’ appointments, and hours of internet research later — when Ashlee was diagnosed with a rare blood condition called aplastic anemia. She was also three months pregnant. She saw a specialist for the remainder of her pregnancy and delivered her son Maverik via emergency C-section in May. “Within two weeks of having Maverik I knew I had to go to Salt Lake City to get a bone marrow transplant.”
Fast forward another two years, and Ashlee is a new person post-transplant. Maverik is a curly-haired 2½-year-old in a Spiderman costume running circles around his mom. Ashlee still lives in Great Falls, but needs to travel to Salt Lake every other month (with Maverik and her mom, Kathy, in tow) to check in with her doctors. While insurance covers most of the medical side of things, there’s still transportation and lodging to consider — which is where Fisher House Foundation comes in.
Started in 1991 by Zachary and Elizabeth Fisher, the foundation helps military and veterans’ families while their loved ones are being treated at military and VA medical centers. Since their inception, they’ve built 78 Fisher Houses in the US, UK, and Germany, and the foundation also connects military and veteran families with alternative lodging options when necessary.
Because Ashlee’s condition is so rare, her care takes place outside of the standard military medical network. For the past year, the Fisher House has been providing Ashlee, Maverik, and Kathy with a place to stay in during their medical visits to Salt Lake City. In October 2018, through the Open Homes partnership with Fisher House, Ashlee stayed in a donated two bedroom apartment in downtown Salt Lake just minutes from her doctors.
“[I’ve enjoyed] it quite a bit. It definitely makes me feel more at home being in somebody else’s home. It’s very cozy, and we have our own private space and the means to cook and all that, so it’s been really nice.”
– Ashlee Wajer, Open Homes guest
Meredith Moore, Fisher House Foundation Program Administrator, adds that “The Fisher House motto is A family’s love is good medicine. We all know you need your family’s love — especially when you’re wounded, ill, or injured. This program allows the family to focus on the wellness of their loved one rather than having to worry about How do I pay for lodging? How can I be close to them?”
Ashlee mentioned that being able to bring her mom along as a caretaker and advocate has been an immense help, and she’s also quick to thank her military network for their support during her treatment journey: “The Air National Guard is a small community. We’re basically like family. I probably wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for all the benefits and their support.”
On Veterans Day, we know the strength and sacrifices of our service members are top of mind. For anyone — whether you’ve served or simply want to give back — hosting through Open Homes is one small way to honor our military family.