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Healing the Brains of American GIs

By WILLIAM MCGURN for The Wall Street Journal

BN-LD375_winter_JV_20151106105405-(3).jpg                Arnold Fisher PHOTO: KEN FALLIN
When Arnold Fisher mustered out of the U.S. Army in 1954 after a stint in Korea, he left as a corporal. But he didn’t leave the service.

Through his day job at the family real-estate business, Mr. Fisher long ago made his mark on the New York City skyline by building several high-profile office towers. Now he is in his ninth decade, and this Veterans Day will find the Fisher Brothers’ senior partner aiming much higher than skyscrapers. Today his obsession is the human brain—specifically, how Americans can help our warriors who return from the battlefield with injuries few understand.

“You take a guy who’s missing half an arm or in a wheelchair and everyone can see what he needs,” says Mr. Fisher, sitting in a midtown Manhattan office whose knickknacks include a personal letter from George W. Bush and a knighthood signed by Queen Elizabeth. “But when a guy comes back and looks normal but doesn’t act normal, we don’t know what to do. And we’ve got hundreds of thousands of these people.”

He’s talking about those suffering from traumatic brain injury or post-traumatic stress. Some call these the “signature wounds” of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, where the improvised explosive device, or IED, has been the chief weapon America’s enemies have used against U.S. troops.

In an explosion, the brain can be thrown off kilter and stop sending impulses the way it did before. The result can be profound disorientation, personality changes, and other issues that can make someone unrecognizable to family and friends. Until very recently, the conventional wisdom held that it was untreatable, because it was thought that the brain stopped developing at some point in our lives.

In 2008, when it became clear how devastating these untreated wounds were, Mr. Fisher decided to take it on. He brought together the leading military and civilian experts to try to combine the latest research with the latest therapies. The first result was the National Intrepid Center of Excellence (NICoE), a $65 million state-of-the-art facility at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.

As researchers delved into the problem, they learned that previous assumptions about the brain were wrong. It turns out that the human brain has an extraordinary capacity to repair itself. At NICoE, the goal is to develop, test and apply the therapies best suited to helping the brain regenerate connections.

Yet NICoE can serve only about 250 people a year, and Mr. Fisher is an impatient man. So no sooner did he get NICoE up and running than he launched another project to build satellites—Intrepid Spirit Centers—at military bases around the nation. Bret Logan, the director at the Intrepid Spirit Center at Fort Campbell in Kentucky, calls them “gymnasiums for the brain.” The aim is to open more of them at the bases that have the populations who need them.

The work is already paying off. “We have more than a 90% success rate,” boasts Mr. Fisher.

By success he means giving men and women their lives back—i.e., restoring them to their families and to active duty. The impact is being likened to what penicillin did to fight infection in World War II.

A colleague of Dr. Logan’s says that for the men and women suffering from traumatic brain injury, “it’s like living in a fun house that isn’t very fun.” These people are disoriented or off-balance because of wrong or incomplete signals inside their brain.

One example: Army Sgt. Rodrigue Jean-Paul was hit by mortar fire and numerous blasts in Afghanistan. In a videotaped interview about the spirit centers, he says that when he came back from war he was creating havoc at home and was on the road to “hurt somebody or kill myself.”

Sgt. Jean-Paul came to the Intrepid Spirit Center at Fort Campbell, and his daughter, Deanna, says she has “seen the change my dad has gone through.” She calls it “Dad 2.0.” Without the treatment, Sgt. Jean-Paul says, he’d probably be dead. In other words, by helping a soldier, the Intrepid Spirit Center helped restore a family.

Today there are Intrepid Spirit Centers at Fort Belvoir in Virginia and Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, in addition to Kentucky’s Fort Campbell. Two more will open next year—at Fort Bragg in North Carolina and Fort Hood in Texas. But four more remain stuck on the drawing board: Fort Bliss in Texas, Fort Carson in Colorado, Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington and Camp Pendleton in California.

That in turn means Mr. Fisher has to raise another $50 million. It isn’t getting any easier, he says. “I don’t know what it is, maybe people are tired of the war, but it’s getting harder and harder these days to raise the money we need.”

The payoff could be huge, with benefits for civilians as well as military. Operating from a large data pool, NICoE and its Intrepid Spirit Centers are better placed than anyone else to advance knowledge about the brain and develop therapies and best practices to improve treatment for everyone from the high-school football player with a concussion to the elderly woman who cracks her head after a spill in the bathroom.

This is what Americans do, Mr. Fisher says. Building these Intrepid Spirit Centers is his way of showing his appreciation for the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who have stepped forward to defend the nation that has been so good to the Fishers. “My family came here without three cents to their name and they were bricklayers,” he says. “Now I’m talking to you from the top floor in an office on Park Avenue. It doesn’t get any more American than that.”

He has traveled to the war zones and spent time with the troops. “I’ve met a lot of these men and women,” he says. “Let me tell you, when these young people sign up, they know they are not going to be assigned to some motor pool in Oklahoma City. They know they’re probably going to end up in a place like Iraq and Afghanistan or worse.

“If you don’t feel the love of country when you’re with these people,” he continues, “there’s something wrong with you.”

That’s something of a family motto. Because there’s a reason his projects carry the word “Intrepid.” It comes from the aircraft carrier the USS Intrepid, which Mr. Fisher’s uncle Zachary Fisher rescued from the scrap heap back in the 1970s. He brought it to New York and turned it into a popular museum that also includes the space shuttle Enterprise. Within hours of the 9/11 attacks, the ship was drafted back into service—as an emergency operations center for the FBI.

A few years later, the wife of an admiral mentioned to Zach Fisher how coming out of Bethesda Naval Hospital one night she saw a car with fogged up windows. Inside she found a sailor who was living in his car while his wife was recuperating from surgery because he didn’t have the money for a hotel room.

That sailor would be the inspiration for the Fisher Houses that have become a familiar sight at military medical centers across the nation. Though started by his Uncle Zach, the Fisher Houses are now headed by Arnold’s son Ken—and the leadership includes several other family members. Since the first Fisher House opened its doors, they have provided more than 250,000 families of military patients “a home away from home,” all at no charge.

Uncle Zach died in 1999. To continue his legacy, his three nephews—including Arnold—set up the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund. At the beginning, it focused on supplementing the death benefit to the families of fallen warriors, who were getting only a pittance ($6,000) from the government.

When the government finally increased the payout, the fund looked for another problem that wasn’t getting adequate resources and commitment. In 2007 it opened the Center for the Intrepid in San Antonio, the military’s most advanced facility for treating soldiers who have suffered severe burns, amputations or functional loss of limbs.

This was also about the time Mr. Fisher and fellow fund officials realized that almost nothing was being done for the troops with the most common but least visible of wounds—traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress. Mr. Fisher says he’s not the only one who is drawing satisfaction from this new work. “When I go to one of our projects, I meet all sorts of workers—plumbers, electricians, carpenters, you name it. They tell me, ‘Mr. Fisher, I’m getting paid to do this. But I’ve never had a better job.’

“And the military families. Oh, the families. These people give so much, not just on the battlefield but in the sacrifices they make on the home front. Yet these families are the most grateful people in the world. They are always saying ‘thank you’ to us when we should be saying it to them.”

He’s not as enamored of the federal government. Though he won’t go there, the contrast between, say, the inefficiency and shabbiness of the Veterans Administration and the way the Fisher family operates is hard not to notice. All Mr. Fisher will say is that he refuses any government funding for his own projects.

“We don’t take a dime from the government because then the government would tell us what to do,” he says. “First thing I say when I get a signed agreement from a secretary of defense is to tell him, ‘stay out of my way.’ Because I can build these things in half the time at half the cost and twice the quality as the government.”

Uncle Sam has taken note. In 2008, in recognition of his service to our military families, the Army said it was going to honor Mr. Fisher by raising his rank. He was asked what rank he’d prefer.

“I told them sergeant major, because everyone knows sergeant majors run the Army.” And today Sgt. Maj. Fisher lets it be known he has no intentions of going anywhere before all the Intrepid Spirit Centers are completed.

“I’m 83 years old and I will see those last four built if God allows me to complete them. Because he’s the only one who could stop me.”

Mr. McGurn writes the Main Street column on Tuesdays and is a member of the Journal editorial board.