Dale I. Beatty vividly remembers his first glimpse of a Fisher House, a home away from home for wounded troops and their families.
The former North Carolina Army National Guard staff sergeant had lost both legs in an explosion in Iraq in 2004 and was a patient at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. His wife and two young sons moved to a Fisher House nearby.
"I rolled in on my first day off pain meds," he said. "I was sick and in a wheelchair. But right away I thought, 'This place is awesome.' I just wanted to sit on the couch. It felt like home."
In Harford County on Saturday, a Support Our Heroes gala will raise money to build more such homes for military personnel. Beatty is now a trustee for the Fisher House Foundation, a national network of 57 facilities across the nation that offer free housing to families of wounded troops undergoing treatment.
"These houses mean we can get the right person at the bedside of these warriors and keep them there," said Brian Gawne, the foundation's vice president for operations.
The gala at Bulle Rock Residents' Clubhouse in Havre de Grace is expected to raise more than $250,000 for the foundation. Beatty had an invitation, but a previous commitment prevents him from attending, he said. He gives the effort a resounding endorsement.
"These homes are a tremendous benefit to these soldiers and their families," Beatty said. "Just think of the money saved on hotel bills and the idea that families can stay indefinitely."
Fisher House allowed Beatty's family to be by his side during his yearlong recovery, and except for a few brief stints in the hospital, he was able to stay at the home with them.
"To have my family close by was good medicine," said Beatty, now a resident of Statesville, N.C. "I could look at my boys and see that I had people depending on me, whether I had legs or not. It motivated me to really want to get better."
The annual benefit moved to Aberdeen Proving Ground last year after several years at now-closed Fort Monmouth, N.J., where the effort began eight years ago. Attendees have always included military personnel and civilians, but this year, for the first time, the gala will move off of the base and into the community.
"We are reaching out to the community and hoping to make everyone feel welcome," said Ed Carnes, chair of the Fisher House Committee and one of many working on the gala.
All told, the galas have raised more than $1.2 million for the foundation, he said. The event begins at 6 p.m., with $100 tickets available at the door. Organizers hope to draw a crowd of about 500.
"Our thank-yous to these heroes is great but it is not enough anymore," said Kit Roache, who is leading efforts to put together dozens of themed baskets for a silent auction. "We have to show our gratitude financially, too. We have to support these folks as they recover from horrific injuries that have huge impacts on them and their families."
A fully furnished home can cost up to $6.5 million and usually houses a dozen suites. Three in Bethesda have 20 suites each. The 58th home will open this fall in Pittsburgh and four more are scheduled for construction in Florida, Tennessee and Texas.
"We want our families to feel like guests and to have peace of mind," said Gawne. "All the money raised at events like the gala is tangible support for these families for years to come."