courtesy Hawkins family
Former British Royal Marine Ed Hawkins was seriously injured in Afghanistan in 2010. He left hospital last year and is currently on a work placement.
LONDON -- Fisher House, the Maryland-based charity which provides overnight accommodation for families visiting hospitalized military members, is expanding onto foreign soil for the first time with a facility for British troops.
Construction has begun on a $6.8-million building with 18 en-suite rooms that will allow relatives to stay close to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, where the U.K.'s most seriously wounded military personnel are treated.
As well as providing servicemen and women a place to relax away from hospital wards, it will have communal living space including a family room, play area, lounge and kitchen and a private garden.
Fisher House, which was founded during the first Gulf War in 1990, has more than 50 projects in the U.S., as well as others located on American bases in Germany. However, this is its first truly international venture.
'Unique American model'
Talk show host and former U.S. Marine Montel Williams and the charity’s chairman, Ken Fisher, attended a ground-breaking ceremony at the site.
Courtesy Fisher House
Montel Williams at the ground-breaking ceremony for the new Fisher House project at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, England, on April 23.
"This is a great honor for Fisher House, as we share with our British brothers and sisters our unique American model for caring for military families," Fisher said.
"This will be a sanctuary for the people who need it most: those who have made deep personal sacrifices – whether on the battlefield or on the home front – to keep us safe. We thank them even though we know it will never be enough."
Almost 10,000 British troops are in combat alongside 90,000 U.S. personnel in Afghanistan. Figures from Britain's Ministry of Defence, collated by The Guardian newspaper, show 832 have been seriously wounded since Operation Enduring Freedom began in 2001.
Many families travel for hundreds of miles to be by their loved ones' bedside -- sometimes for weeks at a time, because of the need for months or even years of surgery and rehabilitation. Military accommodation exists for family members but only six bedrooms are available at Queen Elizabeth Hospital.
Jan. 25: There are many of them around the country and they're all called Fisher House — a place for wounded war veterans to recover with the love and support of their families close by. NBC's Ann Curry reports.
Sue Hawkins, whose son Ed was almost killed by an improvised explosive device while on a patrol in Afghanistan in May 2010, said the new facility would "be a great source of comfort, particularly at a time when families are surrounded by so much uncertainty."
The blast killed his corporal and seriously wounded Ed, who was serving with the Royal Marines. He was flown back to Birmingham for several months of treatment.
"When we were told about Ed, we just left for the hospital," Sue Hawkins told msnbc.com. "We had no idea how long we would be there or even if he would survive. I can remember everything about that day, because of the shock, but that last thing you have time to think about it is planning where to stay."
Five-hour round trip
Faced with a daily five-hour round trip from their home in Hampshire, Sue and her husband Michael spent many nights across the road from the hospital in a former nurses' accommodation block, before moving to the military facility – a converted house in a residential street.
"There were times when Ed became very distressed and we were able to reach him quickly when the hospital called," she said. "That sort of comfort and care is very important. We know first-hand how important it is to have a 'home from home' in difficult, emotional and challenging times. Fisher House truly is a massive step in the best direction possible.”
Ed Hawkins, who is now 26, left hospital last year and is currently on a work placement.
British soldier Nick Gibbons, who lost a leg in a bomb in Afghanistan in 2008, also attended the ground-breaking ceremony on April 23. He told ITV News: "It's what you need really, your family around you. Facilities like this are great because it not only allows the family to stay here, it gives you a better relationship with your family. It's a stressful time. The last thing you want is them travelling."
Fisher House has contributed $2 million to the project, with the rest of the building cost provided by U.K. veterans' charity Help for Heroes, whose high-profile supporters include Prince Harry. It will be operated by the Queen Elizabeth Hospital Charity and funded by Help for Heroes when it opens next year.
Britain's Prince Harry charmed the crowds in Washington, D.C., where he was on hand to accept a humanitarian award for his work with wounded veterans. NBC's Kristen Welker reports.
President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle have previously made a sizeable donation to Fisher House, which also operates a Hero Miles Program that uses donated frequent flyer miles to bring family members to the bedside of injured service members.
Montel Williams told the Birmingham Mail that he was a regular visitor to Fisher House sites in the U.S., cooking meals for soldiers and their families. "I'll definitely be coming to Birmingham to do the same," he told the newspaper. "I'll bring my sister and my chef with me and we'll rustle up things like crab cakes and fish. It'll be real American-style cooking."
Msnbc.com's David Arnott contributed to this report.
More world news from msnbc.com and NBC News:
- Study: Plastic in 'Great Pacific Garbage Patch' increases 100-fold
- US charity's gift to UK troops: $2 million for 'sanctuary'
- $868K mystery: Nigeria stock exchange's yacht, Rolexes vanish
- UK jails 9 members of sex gang who 'shared' teen girls
- Heathrow chaos: Travelers spend longer in line than on jets
- Leak hits Shell Nigeria pipeline at center of environmental case
- Story of vengeful jilted dentist WAS too good to be true
- Poll: Most Egyptians think US aid billions have 'negative effect'
- London jogger: Dustin Hoffman 'saved my life'
Follow us on Twitter: @msnbc_world