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Project to house families of wounded vets hits snag

Justin Crabbe, seen here with his mother, Maureen, underwent rehabilitation at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland.

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Justin Crabbe was 22 when he stepped on an improvised explosive device on Aug. 26, 2011, while serving in the Marine Corps in Afghanistan.

The blast claimed both of his legs and many of his fingers.

Upon hearing the news of his injuries, his parents, Cliff and Maureen Crabbe, and sister Jennifer traveled across the country from southern California to be by his side at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland.

“I thought, ‘What am I going to do? How am I going to afford this?’ ” said Maureen Crabbe, who was faced with the prospect of paying $100 a night for a hotel room for the three of them.

Thanks to the Fisher House Foundation, the family was able to stay nearby throughout Justin’s months-long recovery.

Plans for Albuquerque’s own 16-suite Fisher House, however, are “at a standstill” while involved parties try to negotiate building the facility in a designated historical district, said Sonja Brown, acting associate director of the New Mexico VA Health Care System.

“We had really hoped we could break ground last year,” said Brown, who added the proposed site is the only one available for the house.

The proposed Fisher House site is located on the south end of the parade grounds on the west side of the VA campus in Albuquerque. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

That wasn’t possible due to objections from the New Mexico Historical Preservation Division, which did not accept the foundation’s proposed plans for the $6 million project, which is to be located in the Albuquerque Veterans Administration Medical Center Historic District.

Fisher Houses provide a free place to stay for the families of military members undergoing treatment at medical facilities.

They feature large suites and shared living spaces intended to allow families the opportunity to interact.

The Fisher House Foundation funds, builds and furnishes the homes before passing them into the care of the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs.

The 28-acre historical district in Albuquerque was first placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983, recognized for the Pueblo Revival architectural style of the buildings located within it.

The site selected for the Fisher House is on the southern end of the parade grounds on the west side of the campus.

The Fisher House in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Bowman Ashe Photography)

“That will be the first thing you see when you drive up to the campus,” said Jeff Pappas, state historical preservation officer.

Most of the structures, which include the old main hospital building and officers and nurses quarters, were built by the VA in the 1930s to house and treat veterans with tuberculosis.

Chief among the issues with the Fisher House design was its pitched roof, which Pappas said would not fit in with the architecture – and flat roofs – of the surrounding structures.

“New construction is possible within an existing historical district, but the buildings do have to conform to certain standards,” Pappas said. “That was one of the major characteristics we wanted changed.”

Pappas said if all the requested changes are made, he’ll be on board.

But David Coker, president of the Fisher House Foundation, said changing the roof design would be cost prohibitive.

The logo for the Fisher House, a foundation that provides free housing to families with veterans getting care through the VA.

Now, the VA is reviewing a memorandum of agreement between Pappas and itself that would allow for certain “adverse effects,” like the pitched roof, in exchange for other concessions.

“Hopefully, we’ll come to an agreement,” Coker said.

He said the organization has dealt with similar situations in the past, including in Charleston, S.C., and Milwaukee.

“We’re going to let the MOA process run its course,” Coker said.

No timeline for the project’s completion has been set, but construction should take around a year to complete once begun.

Friends of the New Mexico Fisher House has raised nearly $200,000 of a $3 million goal to contribute toward the project, though Coker said the foundation is capable of footing the entire bill.

“We have learned through the years to work with the local community to get a house,” he said.

Rita Navarette, an advocate for the project, said there is a substantial need for a Fisher House here, given the rural nature of the state and the fact that patients from around the southwest travel to Albuquerque’s VA hospital for care.

Fisher Houses don’t just provide four walls and a roof, though.

“A family’s love is the greatest form of healing,” Maureen Crabbe said. “You couldn’t ask for a better organization.”

She said the time spent with her family and with other families coping with a sick or injured loved one at the Fisher House was invaluable in the healing process for all four of the Crabbes.

Today, Justin Crabbe is doing “phenomenally,” his mother said.

He’s happily married and his second daughter, Birdie June, was born last Wednesday.

His story will be featured in “Vets for Pets,” a book coming out this fall.

He uses a wheelchair around the house and has prosthetics he wears in public.

“He’ll tell you, he’s not going to let this give him a bad day,” she said.