HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (AP) — Hershel "Woody" Williams said a lot has changed since he arrived to work at the Huntington VA Medical Center in 1946.
For starters, the medical center now bears his name.
It's recognition for his service in the U.S. Marine Corps during the Battle of Iwo Jima in World War II, which earned him a Medal of Honor in 1945. There have also been drastic advancements in medicine and science.
"When I see what is happening here on these grounds and the care they are able to give, the services that are provided, it's a different world," Williams said. "It's a different world in the science and medical world, too. As I thought about it this morning, I thought, 'It's like comparing a Model A Ford and a jet airplane.'"
Williams, 96, was at the Hershel "Woody" Williams VA Medical Center on Thursday to witness the groundbreaking ceremony for another big advancement there: the state's first Fisher House.
A Fisher House provides families a place to stay, free of charge, while their loved ones are receiving treatment at a VA Medical Center or military base. The 16-suite, 13,270-square-foot Fisher House in Huntington will join 84 other Fisher Houses operating in the United States and Europe when it is completed next year.
Each bedroom suite will be equipped with a private and handicapped-accessible bathroom. Common areas will include a spacious kitchen, a large communal living area, dining and family rooms, a laundry room and a patio. It will provide more than 500 families a place to stay each year.
Currently, families visiting their loved ones have to stay at nearby hotels, the closest of which is about 15 minutes away.
"One person's vision is resulting in a place over the years that will give comfort and give peace to many families during a very anxious time, not knowing if they are going to survive," Williams said.
"Yet they will have a place close by that they can be near their loved ones. It will remove the anxiety of those awaiting news of improvements and the wellness of those receiving care in this medical center because it is near."
Fisher Houses are spearheaded by the nonprofit organization, the Fisher House Foundation. Since opening the first Fisher Houses in 1991, the foundation has saved an estimated $451 million in out-of-pocket costs for lodging and transportation for military and veteran families.
Ken Fisher, chairman and CEO of the foundation, also attended Thursday's ceremonial groundbreaking.
Fisher said the construction of these houses serves as a reminder to everyone about what's at stake.
"It's easy for us to forget that there are men and women still in harm's way," Fisher said. "It's easy for us to forget their families, and it's easy for us to forget the sacrifices that are being made on behalf of our freedom and our way of life."
Fisher was joined by U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., who he called a close friend. The pair worked together to secure the continuation of death benefits for families during the 2013 government shutdown, which threatened to halt all benefit payments.
Manchin said he just returned from spending time on the USS Abraham Lincoln on the Arabian Sea, visiting West Virginia troops assigned to conduct missions there.
He addressed military members and veterans in the audience, saying they are the reason America is considered a superpower on the global stage.
"It is the military — and you all know this — it's the veterans that is the glue that holds this country together," Manchin said. "As dysfunctional and toxic the political atmosphere is, this is the glue that holds us together."
Also attending Thursday's groundbreaking ceremony was West Virginia National Guard Maj. Gen. James A. Hoyer and VA Deputy Secretary James M. Byrne. Remarks were also shared from U.S. Reps. Alex Mooney and Carol Miller, both R-W.Va.; Bill Johnson, R-Ohio; and U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va.
Huntington's Fisher House is made possible from material donations from 84 Lumber and donations made to the Fisher House Foundation. Construction is being handled by Emerald Construction of Richmond, Virginia.
Before closing his remarks, Williams suggested naming the Huntington Fisher House after Huntington VA Medical Center Director Brian Nimmo.
Information from: The Herald-Dispatch, http://www.herald-dispatch.com