The West Point Association of Graduates presented the 2022 Sylvanus Thayer Award to Mr. Kenneth “Ken” Fisher, the Chairman and CEO of Fisher House Foundation and a co-managing partner of Fisher Brothers Realty Corp on October 6 in Washington Hall where he addressed the Corps at dinner. As a business leader and philanthropist, Ken has worked tirelessly for decades as an advocate for those who made tremendous sacrifices while serving this country.
Earlier in the day, Fisher was honored with a full-dress parade by the Corps of Cadets at West Point and had the opportunity to meet with cadets in the classroom and visit the Thayer Award Room in Taylor Hall where his legacy of “Duty, Honor, Country” will be permanently preserved for future cadets alongside past Thayer Award honorees.
As the Chairman and CEO of Fisher House Foundation, Ken carries on the legacy of his great-uncle, Zachary Fisher, by overseeing a network of nearly 90 “Fisher Houses” throughout the United States, United Kingdom, and Germany. These residencies provide a comfortable home where military and veterans’ families can stay at no cost while a loved one receives medical treatment.
Fisher Houses support more than 28,000 military families each year. More than 1,000 military family members stay at a Fisher House on any given night. Over the years, the Fisher House Foundation has provided more than eight million nights of lodging, saving military and veteran families more than $400 million in out-of-pocket expenses.
Under Ken’s leadership, the Fisher House Foundation has partnered with the Department of Defense to establish the Hero Miles (2004) and the Hotels for Heroes (2011) programs, which allow families to use donated frequent flyer miles to purchase airline tickets and helps provide them hotel lodging when a Fisher House is not available. The nonprofit has also awarded more than $11 million in scholarships and has been consistently recognized for its success and high accountability standards, receiving the rare A+ rating from CharityWatch.org and a perfect four-star rating from Charity Navigator for 14 consecutive years.
The Fisher House Foundation is one of several nonprofit organizations that Ken and the Fisher Family have led. Ken also serves as Co-Chairman of the Intrepid Museum Foundation and has helped lead the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum into becoming a unique nonprofit educational institution that provides award-winning STEM programs to thousands of New York City public school children. He also served as the Chairman of the 2016 Invictus Games in Orlando.
The Thayer Award recognizes a citizen of the United States, other than a West Point graduate, whose outstanding character, accomplishments, and stature draw a wholesome comparison to the qualities for which West Point strives. Mr. Ken Fisher is a worthy addition to the list of individuals who have received this award as his devotion to those who have made immense sacrifices in service to the nation is a quality that all Americans should admire. Having Ken’s name on the Thayer Award plaque and his portrait in the Thayer Room of Taylor Hall forever demonstrates to the public the principles upon which West Point is built: “Duty, Honor, Country.”
I must confess that I struggled for months to find the right words that describe my feelings tonight because I never considered myself worthy of an award such as this. It remains difficult to imagine that my name will be added to a list that includes former Presidents, Generals, Cabinet Secretaries, Diplomats—all giants from different walks of life who devoted their lives to serving this nation. As I stood in that majestic Thayer Room and gazed at the portraits of past honorees, I realized how honored I will be to walk in the shadow of giants.
My most sincere gratitude to the West Point Association of Graduates for this honor. My thanks to General Gilland for the incredible experience of reviewing such an impressive Corps of Cadets. And thank you to the Corps for allowing me the opportunity to be among you. It is one of this nation’s great blessings that so many of our nation’s future leaders, those being prepared to accept the mantle of leadership, are trained here at this storied academy. There is no mistaking that Sylvanus Thayer’s mission lives on through your fortitude and strength of character.
I also want to thank those family members here tonight—my mother, stepfather, my brother and sister, my daughters Crystal and Brittany, my granddaughters Rose and Gianna, my son Josh and Meg. My only regret is that my father could not be here to share this night with me.
But I can go no further without acknowledging my wife, Tammy, who has been by my side through this amazing journey—one in which, over 20 years, we’ve taken a handful of Fisher Houses, and built a network totaling nearly 100 facilities across the country and spanning 2 continents. In 2 weeks, we will celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary—she is my strength, mother to 3 amazing adults, grandmother to 2 beautiful girls, and the leader of my own Fisher House. Your being here makes tonight even more special for me.
Wherever I go around this great nation, I am quick to point out that I did not wear the uniform of the United States Army or any branch of service. Because of that fact, I have no anecdotes from my own Beast Week, or vignettes about military life or my experience being deployed in a forward area. My exposure to the military began watching news reports on the Vietnam War as a 12-year-old boy—what I remember quite clearly was my reaction to clips depicting how our troops were treated when they came home. There was no fanfare, no ticker tape parades, no thank you for your service for answering their country’s call. Instead our returning heroes were greeted by disdain for policies they didn’t mak —their service and sacrifice mistaken for collusion with a government under siege. But in the years that followed, I watched this group of veterans turn bitterness of that experience into a pledge—a pledge that no future generation of veterans would ever come home to that kind of treatment again. And so tonight, I stand with all Vietnam Veterans wherever they may be.
By now, you almost surely know what Fisher House is and what we do. In the 30-plus years since our founding, more than 430,000 guest families have passed through our doors, and have saved over $500 million in lodging and travel expenses. But those figures and statistics are just numbers – they don’t really get to the heart of what we do. Because our mission isn’t simply to relieve families from their financial burden in their time of need. It’s to strengthen the bridge that needs to connect American civilians with those who live more exclusively in the military and veterans’ community. Because the chasm between these communities has, in my view, grown too wide, I would like to take a few moments highlighting why we all need to do more to strengthen those connections.
The story that explains why this became such an obsession for me began on a Friday night back in February 2007, when I received a call from a woman claiming to be from the White House. Thinking this was some happy hour prank, I immediately hung up. But when the phone rang again not 2 minutes later, and I glanced at the caller ID I quickly realized that I hung up on your Commander in Chief.
In the conversation that followed, I was asked to join a panel chartered to examine the military and veteran healthcare system through the eyes of the wounded themselves. And that honor started me on a journey – a journey that continues to this day.
Just to give you a sense of the landscape at the time—it had recently come to the DoD’s attention that living conditions for our wounded, who had been discharged from Walter Reed but needed follow-up care or medical board review, had deteriorated drastically. Military medicine had improved to the point that 95% of those wounded on the battlefield were now surviving their wounds—wounds that would have been fatal in past conflicts. But the military’s ability to move our soldiers through the system seamlessly was not sufficiently robust, in part because the number of unseen wounds were also rising. Newspapers and magazine soon picked up the story, and anger turned to outrage.
After a series of congressional hearings, President Bush decided to form a presidential commission of 9 men and women charged with sorting out the issues that led to too many servicemen and women languishing in this sort of interminable limbo.
And so the 9 of us, led by Senator Bob Dole and Secretary Donna Shalala, traveled the country visiting hospitals, interviewing the wounded and holding field hearings. What we uncovered was, simply put, an overly administrative system suffocating under the weight of its own bureaucracy.
In the years since, both the DoD and the VA have made vast improvements to the quality of care our wounded, injured and ill now receive, thanks in part to the incredible work of the doctors, nurses and all our military healthcare professionals that we at Fisher House are so proud to partner with. But what I learned on that journey of discovery has stuck with m —especially after meeting Sara Wade and her husband Sgt Ted Wade while giving their testimony at a hearing at Walter Reed, testimony that illustrated vividly how wide the civilian/military divide had grown. Sgt. Wade, who served as a member of the 82nd Airborne, had endured catastrophic wounds, including severe TBI, when his Humvee hit an IED in Iraq. After receiving care in theatre, he was medevac’d to Landstuhl, Germany where his wife Sara soon joined him. Like so many other spouses and family members, Sara became Ted’s primary healthcare advocate due to his head wounds. Miraculously, his condition began to improve, and he was transferred stateside to Walter Reed for further treatment. After months of intense rehabilitation, the couple finally returned home to N.C. but when Sara returned to work, there was no celebration of service to her country, only a pink slip. Sara had been terminated for, and I quote, having too much on her plate.
That moment highlighted three realities that speak powerfully to the fraught relationship that exists today between the civilian and military communities. First, too many Americans fail to understand that it’s not just officers and enlisted members of the military who serve, but their families serve as well. Parents, spouses, siblings and children make sacrifices and bear burdens the average American will never understand. If their servicemember or veteran needs hospitalization due to wounds, injury or illness, the burdens and stress only grow. More often than not, these families have to travel across the country to a place they are not familiar with, with 2 things in common: a loved one who is sick or injured and no affordable place to stay.
Second, for those of us who didn’t serve, it may always be appropriate to thank military families for their service, but that alone is not good enough. If that sentiment isn’t backed up with genuine gratitude, if the civilian community isn’t honoring those sacrifices, we are falling short as a nation. Third, our failure to appreciate the role families play supporting their loved ones reflect the degree to which the bonds that tie the country together have frayed.
Ultimately, we need to do a much better job building and maintaining the bridges which traverse the widening chasm that separate those who give so much to this nation from those who enjoy the freedom that comes from that service. That, in my opinion, is why Fisher House is so important. It’s not just that we provide free lodging for families caring for sick or injured members of the military. It’s that we represent the promise of how America’s civilian community can make good on the debt of gratitude we owe those who defend our freedom—a debt that can never fully be repaid. Fisher Houses’ motto is “A Family’s Love is the Best Medicine of All”—and aiding these families is a crucial part of what those of us who haven’t served owe to those who do—along with a promise—a promise that we will never forget those family members that gave all to the cause of freedom.
The bridge we are working to strengthen has been a part of my family’s commitment to America for decades now. When my Uncle Zachary, the son of an immigrant stone mason from Russia, founded our organization in 1990, he was bent on reducing some of the stress families endure when caring for their loved ones, while at the same time giving back to a nation that had been so good to his family. When Zach fell ill in 1998, he asked me and Tammy to represent him at the opening ceremony of the 24th Fisher House at Lackland AFB outside of San Antonio. And while I never asked him why he sent me in particular; I can’t help but think he knew what he was doing. And as I reflect on that day, I realized that he wasn’t just entrusting me with a legacy, he was instilling in me a self-awareness that I could serve this nation in a different kind of way—by continuing to build and strengthen that bridge. And that’s exactly what Tammy and I have tried to do in the years since.
That’s why being here tonight is such an honor—because I get to see the other side of that service. But while I am proud of what Fisher House has done in creating facilities that help civilians support military, I know that beyond our specific mission, our nation has a long way to go in ensuring everyone in our country shares in that calling.
The depth of connection between these two communities has, of course, ebbed and flowed throughout the years. When this country was so divided over the Vietnam War, support for our troops was at an all-time low. After we were brutally attacked on 9/11, this nation united behind our military in a way not seen since WWII. The plight of the military family was becoming part of our national dialog, and thank you for your service could be heard in airports, train stations—anywhere we saw a man or woman wearing the uniform. But while we once again embraced our military as we did 2 generations earlier, today we are once again a nation divided—politically, socially, economically—in just about every way imaginable. Extremism dominates the political landscape, and our public discourse has eroded. As a result, the focus on the divide that remains between the civilian and military families has been marginalized, if not forgotten. History must not be allowed to repeat itself.
Ladies and Gentlemen, the time has come for us to really take stock, once again, of what makes this country great. Why is it that, without fail, our military is always first on the scene when a hurricane, earthquake or other natural disaster devastates a developing nation? Why are we the ones who aid victims of global pandemics? Why are we the ones who send food and clothing to those in need? Why are we the ones who answer the call when liberty and justice is threatened?
We come together in service to others because we have long been strengthened by our differences. Yes, America is a wild mix of people from different races, different ethnicities, different backgrounds, different outlooks. And for most of our history, even amid terrible injustices – we’ve celebrated our diversity. It has girded us against every challenge, both foreign and domestic and we’ve emerged as a beacon of hope and strength. Today we need to ensure that some strength is reborn, and that process begins by reinvesting in the bond that needs to exist between the nation’s public and private communities.
That mission is bigger than just taking care of those who served, as Fisher House does. It’s wound up in creating new technology that will serve us on the battlefield and in the private sector. In harnessing new green technology that powers our homes and industry and keeps us safe from climate change. In building the infrastructure that will serve both a strong national defense and a healthy, growing economy – and in building affordable housing for civilian population, while improving the quality of life for military families. Fisher House shows in one realm of the American experience how these communities are stronger together. The question is, in other realms, whether we can fruitfully lean on each other to do more than either can do alone.
In my life, I have come across few who understood that mutual obligation or embodied that spirit of collaborative leadership more than one particular former Thayer Award recipient, Bob Dole, America’s last true statesman. Senator Dole acted as a mentor to me beginning when I served under his chairmanship on the Dole/Shalala Commission. But even in the years that followed, we kept in touch, and I strive to this day to emulate his example of service and his commitment to military and veteran families. Senator Dole’s life and his sacrifice were reminders that freedom is a gift from God—it must be cherished and yes, at times, defended by you who will bear the burdens of leadership and those who serve under you. Those who answer the call to arms, in times of peace and war, transcend the division which run rife through our society. Abraham Lincoln told us that a house divided cannot stand—and despite our military, these deep divisions will keep us from playing the role, quite frankly, this nation needs to play around the world—and will keep us from tackling the important problems that plague us domestically. We need to remember that we are all Americans first and foremost and politics cannot be allowed to influence that reality.
I may be a civilian, but duty, honor, country is how I have tried to live my life as well—and as I look at you who will take your place in that incredible Long Gray Line, I marvel that you all feel that way at such an early stage of your lives. It takes a great deal of courage and conviction to make sacrifices on behalf of our freedom, while your peers are enjoying those freedoms, we all take for granted.
That is exactly why being among you is so special for me.
In closing, I would offer the following thoughts for your future—the U.S. Army—indeed the entire military, has become the symbol of stability in a world too often pivoting between extremes. Your fellow Americans rely on you—not just as warfighters, or global first responders, but as our current and future leaders—you, the corps, are the symbols of a stable America. In your hands are the reins to guide the future of this country—in conflict, in diplomacy, in the communities where you live and in the hearts and minds of your fellow citizens. This is the core of your mission and as I look out at you tonight, I know we are in safe hands. Thank you once again for this incredible honor. God bless you and your families. God bless the Corps. And God bless the United States of America.
The West Point Association of Graduates is pleased to announce that the highly distinguished and noteworthy philanthropist Kenneth Fisher will receive the 2022 Sylvanus Thayer Award. The award will be presented on October 6, 2022 during ceremonies hosted by Lieutenant General Steve Gilland, Class of 1990, 61st Superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Medal award ceremony includes review by corps of cadets at U.S. Military Academy.
West Point Association of Graduates Board Chairman, Honorable Robert A. McDonald, Class of 1975, said, “I have had the pleasure and honor of knowing Ken Fisher for many years. Most recently, as Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, I personally witnessed the value Ken brings to Veterans and their families as we opened more Fisher Houses around the country. Veteran families were able to be close by while their loved ones were going through treatment at a VA Medical Center. Because legislation prevents the VA from funding or building similar structures, private partnerships like Fisher Houses are critical to Veterans and the military community. Further, I had the joy of working with Ken on the Invictus Games, which he chaired in Orlando, Florida. These games brought disabled Veterans together from all over the world. President George and First Lady Laura Bush, First Lady Michelle Obama and Prince Harry were all involved in this successful event. Ken represents the values of West Point: Duty, Honor, Country. I am so pleased that the West Point Association of Graduates is honoring him for his achievements.”
“I am honored to accept the Sylvanus Thayer Award,” said Mr. Fisher. “I am humbled by the nomination and to join the ranks of the incredible list of past recipients.”
Kenneth “Ken” Fisher, has made a name for himself supporting military personnel and their families. As the Chairman and CEO of Fisher House Foundation. Ken oversees an international network of comfort homes where military and Veterans’ families can stay at no cost while a loved one is receiving medical treatment. Presently, 92 such “Fisher Houses” exist throughout the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany. Carrying on a legacy that began with his great uncle, Zachary Fisher, Ken and the Fisher House Foundation have provided assistance to more than 413,000 military families, totaling more than 10 million nights of lodging and saving them an estimated $525 million in out-of-pocket travel and lodging costs. On any given night, more than 1,300 military families are sleeping in a Fisher House.
In 2011, under Ken’s leadership, the Fisher House Foundation partnered with the Department of Defense to establish Hero Miles and Hotels for Heroes, which helps provide air travel and hotel lodging for families of service members to stay close by when a Fisher House is not available. Thanks to Ken’s dedication and guidance, the Fisher House Foundation has been consistently recognized for its success and high standards of accountability, receiving the rare A+ rating from CharityWatch.org, and a perfect four-star rating from Charity Navigator for 14 consecutive years.
Ken also serves as co-chairman of the Intrepid Museum Foundation and has helped lead the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum into becoming a unique nonprofit educational institution that provides award-winning STEM programs to thousands of New York City public school children. He also served as the chairman of the 2016 Invictus Games in Orlando. Working alongside Prince Harry, Ken led the efforts to bring the games to the United States, leveraging the power of sport to inspire recovery, support rehabilitation, and generate a wider understanding and respect for wounded, injured and sick service members.
In 2007, Ken was appointed by the Bush Administration to the President’s Commission on Care of America’s Returning Wounded Warriors and has served on several policy boards in support of former U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and former U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. Ken is a member of the Board of Directors for the United States Army Command and General Staff College, and the Board of Directors of the Business Executives for National Security.
In addition to a philanthropist, Ken is also a business leader. He is a co-managing partner of Fisher Brothers Management Company, a third-generation, family-owned real estate development and management company. With his nearly 40 years in the real estate industry, Ken oversees Fisher Brothers’ daily operations, including the management, marketing, construction and leasing of the company’s Manhattan portfolio, which includes 299 Park Avenue, 1345 Avenue of the Americas, Park Avenue Plaza and 605 Third Avenue. Under his direction, the company is implementing far-reaching modernizations to its infrastructure and technology.
Over the years, Ken has received a series of distinctions, inductions and high-civilian honors, including being named one of America’s Best Leaders by U.S. News & World Report. Additional honors include the Phelps Award from the Friends of the Vietnam Memorial (2017), the HillVets 100 (2018), the Secretary’s Award from the Department of Veterans Affairs (2004), the Medal for Distinguished Public Service from the Department of Defense (2012, 2013), the U.S. Army’s George C. Marshall Medal (2009), an “Honorary Green Beret” distinction from the Special Forces Association (2007), an “Honorary Marine” distinction from the United States Marine Corps (2011), induction into the Order of Military Medical Merit (2001), the Public Awareness Award from the Paralyzed Veterans of America, the Lives That Make A Difference Award from A+E Television Networks, the Ellis Island Medal of Freedom (2001), the Heroes of Military Medicine Lifetime Achievement Award (2014), and the VFW Citizenship Award (2019).