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Mary and Jack Howser of Anaconda, Mont., have been up and down Interstate 15 so many times since summer that their minivan could practically find its own way to Salt Lake City's VA hospital.

Lucky for them, those days are over.

On Monday, the Montana couple and members of five other families were the first to check in to Fisher House, the new home-away-from-home for families of veterans being treated at the George E. Wahlen Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

By mid-afternoon, Mary Howser had loaned her lemon juice to Elaine Jensen of Garland. "And I borrowed her milk," Howser said.

For the house, free of charge to patients' families, is about more than just saving patients' families money and hassle. "We'll support each other," said Jensen.

Her husband, Floyd Jensen, who served 20 years in the Air Force, was cracking jokes and readying himself to have his bladder and prostate removed on Tuesday. "We're all going through different things, but the same thing," Elaine Jensen said.

Fisher House was built by the Fisher House Foundation, which has built 54 such houses on military bases and near VA hospitals over two decades. It provides a home-like stay for families of veterans who must travel more than two hours or over 50 miles for treatment, said manager Quinn Kiger-Good.

The Salt Lake City VA serves one of the biggest regions in the nation, so many patients travel great distances.

The 20-bedroom house is available only to veterans with family members and whose treatment requires at least three nights in Salt Lake City, Kiger-Good said. "My goal is to keep it filled."

On its first day in business, the $5.8 million Fisher House had a feeling of tranquility even as the new tenants raved about its upscale d├ęcor.

"My honest opinion is, you didn't need to spend so much money!" Elaine Jensen said. "This is way above me. I'm a country girl," she added, as her husband chimed in: "Our house is done in early American garage sale."

Howser said her first thought was, "This can't be. It was too nice to be free for everybody."

She set up her scrapbooking supplies in the bedroom she will share with her husband, a Vietnam vet who has two more weeks of daily radiation treatments at the hospital, just two parking lots away.

They had already spent $500 on a motel during the first two weeks of treatment, and had driven to Salt Lake City from Anaconda eight times since August.

All guests prepare their own food, and wash their own laundry, and the family room is equipped with board games and even a Wii video console.

"This is going to be really nice," said Sharon Swensen of Mount Pleasant, who stayed in motel rooms a few nights and has been commuting from her daughter's house in Tooele to visit her husband, Chris Swensen, a Vietnam vet.

He had surgery for an aortic aneurysm in early December and remains in intensive care. "When he gets tired, I can come back here," said Swensen.

Dedication set

A formal dedication of Fisher House is set for Feb. 29. Besides bearing the name of the foundation's founders, Zachary and Elizabeth Fisher, it will be dedicated to Chance Phelps, a 19-year-old Marine from Dubois, Wyo., who died in Iraq in 2004.

How to help

Additional furnishings and on-going support from the community is needed for Salt Lake City's Fisher House. Go to http://www.fisherhousesaltlakecity.com to learn about the needs.

Fundraisers are also trying to reach at least $3 million in donations to "pay it forward" for a new Fisher House in another community. That fundraising effort is being led by retired Marine colonel Ray Bachiller, 801-545-8762, or bachiller1@aol.com. —

Dedication set

A formal dedication of Fisher House is set for Feb. 29. Besides bearing the name of the foundation's founders, Zachary and Elizabeth Fisher, it will be dedicated to Chance Phelps, a 19-year-old Marine from Dubois, Wyo., who died in Iraq in 2004. —

How to help

Additional furnishings and on-going support from the community is needed for Salt Lake City's Fisher House. Go to http://www.fisherhousesaltlakecity.com to learn about the needs.

Fundraisers are also trying to reach at least $3 million in donations to "pay it forward" for a new Fisher House in another community. That fundraising effort is being led by retired Marine colonel Ray Bachiller, 801-545-8762, or bachiller1@aol.com.