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Left to right: Jim Costigan, Ed Carnes, Kit Roache, Kevin O'Brien, Scott Cheseldine and Bob Fasulo have all worked to make the Support Our Heroes Ball happen. They are holding a handmade quilt that was to be auctioned off at the ball. (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun / June 24, 2011)

A dance under a circus-sized tent at Aberdeen Proving Ground has raised more than $300,000 for a network of houses that offer free lodging to the families of wounded warriors.

The first Support Our Heroes Ball held in Maryland drew more than 500 guests, a sell-out crowd, Saturday to the Harford County Army post. Many of those dancers were newcomers to Aberdeen, who have transferred here from Fort Monmouth, N.J., where the ball tradition began and has raised nearly $1 million in the last six years.

Proceeds benefit Fisher House Foundation, a group of 54 residences nationwide that offer the comforts of home to families of patients receiving care at military medical centers. Maryland has five such houses near the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda. Another is located at Andrews Air Force Base and three more are at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. These nine houses alone have provided more than 30,000 nights of free lodging to families since the program began nearly a decade ago.

"All you have to do is go and see what this foundation does and you can't help but get involved," said Jim Costigan, who has helped to organize the event. "It's contagious and an all-American event for a great cause. You will want to come back next year and buy a table, not just a ticket."

Ballgoers include soldiers and civilians, many of whom return annually, he said. Even when ticket prices jumped from $75 to $125, the ball sold out quickly. A silent auction that features many themed baskets and an art sale add to the proceeds.

"There are Fort Monmouth people and Aberdeen people, but we are all one team now because of the culmination of BRAC," Costigan said.

The New Jersey base is closing and much of its staff has relocated to APG, which is expanding by as many as 10,000 jobs and several new buildings as part of the nationwide military realignment, known as BRAC.

"The ball also gets citizens inside the gate at the installation and lets us show off what has just been built here," he said.

Ed Carnes, chair of the Fisher House Committee, remembered the first family he met at one of the Washington locations. The soldier had lost his arm. His mother explained to Carnes that they were blue collar from Detroit and could not afford Washington hotel rates.

"She told me that Fisher House meant she could be with her son to help him recover," Carnes said. "The foundation meant she had free use of a rental car and frequent flyer miles that helped other family members fly in and help. I started the ball right after that."

The first dance raised about $50,000. The 2010 ball donated $265,000 to Fisher House and this seventh one has already surpassed $300,000. The VFW organizers throughout New Jersey contributed more than $60,000 to this year's total, Carnes said.

Organizers also plan to donate $10,000 each to two severely wounded veterans, who "are our special guests," said Carnes. "They both have unbelievable spirit and will pull on our hearts."

Carnes, a Vietnam Veteran who served 23 years in the Army, recalls an era when returning soldiers were not afforded the gratitude, respect and appreciation they receive today. But, he added, just saying thank you may not be enough.

"We have to support our heroes passionately," he said.

mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com