Sunday, November 13, 2011

'Hotels for Heros' Will Help Wounded Warriors

MSNBC: For people thinking of ways to give back on this Veterans Day, there is a new program in the works to help wounded warriors and their families by providing free hotel stays.

Hotels for Heroes, a program that would allow consumers to donate hotel reward points to injured service members who are traveling to receive care through the military health system and to their families, was recently announced by Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin and Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, both Maryland Democrats.

"It's really about Americans helping other Americans," said Susan Sullam, communications director for Senator Cardin. Federal legislation was introduced in both the Senate and the House last week, she said. "It is the ideal time, as people are focused on veterans because of Veterans Day."

As of Nov. 10, 31,921 members of the U.S. Armed Forces have been wounded in Iraq and 14,793 wounded in Afghanistan, according to Department of Defense statistics.

If the legislation is passed, Hotels for Heroes would be an expansion of the national Hero Miles program that provides free round-trip airfare to wounded warriors recovering at military or Veterans Affairs (VA) medical centers as well as to friends and family visiting them. Flights are made possible by airline passengers who donate frequent flier miles.

"We are thrilled to be able to help these soldiers heal with their families at their side by helping to reduce travel expenses," Ruppersberger said in a statement. Ruppersberger introduced legislation for the Hero Miles program in 2003.

The Hero Miles program is administered by the Fisher House Foundation, a nonprofit organization that provides accommodations to military families visiting injured troops at hospitals.

"To date, over $35 million worth of tickets have been donated by Americans, that’s more than 25,000 tickets that have allowed military families get to the bedsides of their loved ones," said Cindy Campbell, vice president for community relations and media affairs for Fisher House, and a retired naval officer.

Fisher House, which will administer Hotels for Heroes if the proposed legislation passes, has a network of 54 houses in the U.S. and Germany on the grounds of major military hospitals and VA medical centers.

Earlier this year, Staff Sergeant Chaz Allen was injured in Afghanistan, and lost both legs. Once back in the U.S., his wife Jessica Allen flew back and forth regularly to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington from Tennessee. Hero Miles provided most of the tickets for Allen, and also provided tickets to other family members, according to the foundation.

The U.S. government pays for the immediate family to fly to visit their wounded loved ones, but there is a cap on how many flights can be taken, and many family members are not eligible, Campbell said. The goal is that no family member will ever have to worry about how to afford tickets, she said.

"Americans have been extremely generous, and we hope they will be just as generous when it comes to hotel points," she said. The new program, if passed, would allow veterans and military families to utilize hotels when the Fisher House homes are full.

Legislation is still in the proposal stage, but early feedback from representatives in the hotel industry is positive.

"As an industry, we are very interested," said Joseph A. McInerney, president and chief executive of the American Hotel & Lodging Association, a hotel industry trade group. "Even if it doesn’t get passed, maybe as an industry we need to step up and do something. The military is like motherhood and apple pie. Why wouldn’t you want to do something for people who defend our country every day?"

Bjorn Hanson, divisional dean of the Preston Robert Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism and Sports Management at New York University, said: "My understanding is that U.S. lodging industry owners, managers and brand executives embrace this is as a great idea and look forward to this and similar programs."

Occupancy for 2012 will be around 60 percent, Hanson said, "so in many markets on many nights there are rooms available, and that availability can create opportunities for our industry to be helpful and say 'thank you' to troops and their families."

More information about the Hero Miles program can be found here.

Hotel points cannot currently be donated, but people interested in voicing support for Hotels for Heroes legislation can contact their congressmen or senators, Sullam said.

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