America Supports You: United Steps Up to Help 'Hero Miles'

By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, April 14, 2006  - Officials at the Fisher House Foundation, administrator of Operation Hero miles, have 123 million reasons to smile today.

Illinois Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn announced at a news conference yesterday that Illinois-based United Airlines has donated 123 million frequent-flier miles to the operation.

Hero Miles took off in 2004, thanks to Maryland U.S. Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland. He had approached and urged U.S. airlines to provide free round-trip tickets to servicemembers on rest-and-recuperation leave.

Then the law changed and the Defense Department took financial responsibility for those tickets. The miles just sat in their accounts, Jim Weiskopf, vice president of communications for the nonprofit Fisher House, told American Forces Press Service.

The laws also prevented the miles from being given to another group that needed them: families of injured servicemembers. That changed in the fiscal 2005 Defense Authorization Act, Weiskopf said. Legislation in the act permits the Defense Department to accept frequent flyer miles and permits family members to use them.

"It also says that the Department of Defense can partner with a nonprofit to administer the miles," he said. That nonprofit is Fisher House, which has agreements with six major airlines and is in negotiations with a seventh.

The United Airlines donation may seem like a never-ending supply of airline tickets, but Hero Miles can never have too many, Weiskopf said.

"We go through between 1.5 (million) and 2.5 million miles a week," he said. Some of those tickets can cost Hero Miles 100,000 miles each.

Quinn noted yesterday that 20 Illinois families have received free tickets through the Hero Miles program, and he encouraged Illinois residents to donate miles to the program. "During this Easter and Passover season ... let's thank our wounded heroes for their service by helping to reunite (them) with their families."

One recipient is Jeff Ziegel, from Metamora, Ill., who joined the lieutenant governor at the ceremony. Ziegel's son, Marine Cpl. Tyler "Ty" Ziegel, was seriously wounded in Iraq in December 2004 when a suicide bomber detonated a car full of explosives.

Two days after the incident, the Fisher House Foundation flew Jeff, his wife, Becky, their son, Zachary, and Ty's fiancee, Renee Kline, to his bedside at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio. The Fisher House provided housing for the family while they visited Ty.

"Having family around is good for these guys when they are recovering," Jeff Ziegel told a local reporter. "They've made sure that the family is there. If people are looking for a way to support our troops, this one really does it."

"United's a biggie," Weiskopf said of the newest partner. The fact that United has the only nonstop service from Dulles International Airport here to Frankfurt, Germany, made the airline a desirable partner, he added. Frankfurt's airport serves the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center area. Landstuhl usually is the first stop for wounded servicemembers evacuated from Iraq and Afghanistan.

"United is honored to participate in the Hero Miles program," said Ken Feldman, United's vice president for loyalty and E-commerce. "As a global company, United is in a unique position to support Fisher House's mission to provide comfort and hope to military families in need."

Airline tickets are available for families of military or Defense Department civilian employees injured as a result of their military service anywhere in the world. These tickets cannot be used for any travel unrelated to a medical condition.

Through Hero Miles, Weiskopf said, Fisher House has provided about 5,200 tickets to the families of injured servicemembers. Those donated tickets represent an averages savings of about $1,300 per ticket to family members.

"We've spent about $70,000 of our own money paying the airport security fees and some of the taxes, and we've saved servicemembers and their families about $6.5 million in 26 months," he said. "That's money well spent. Any time you can spend $10 and save someone $1,300, it is."

Information on donating frequent flyer miles to Operation Hero Miles can be found on the Fisher House Foundation Web site.

The foundation, a member of DoD's America Supports You program, builds homes on and near the grounds of large military and Veterans Affairs medical facilities. The houses are for servicemembers who must stay near a hospital for continuing treatment and families visiting their loved ones there. Guests staying at a Fisher House do so at no charge.

(AFPS reporter Donna Miles contributed to this report.)

Related Sites:

Fisher House Foundation []

America Supports You []

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