BETHESDA, Md. (AP) — First Lady Michelle Obama cut a bright red ribbon Thursday to open the first of three new, privately financed residences for families of ailing U.S. soldiers and veterans at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda.

Obama said providing free lodging is the least the nation can do for those bearing the sacrifice of an ill or wounded service member.

 “When our men and women in uniform are called to serve, their families serve, too. Their sacrifice is their families’ sacrifice as well,” she said.

 The Fisher Houses, each containing 20 well-appointed suites, were built by the Fisher House Foundation, a Rockville-based charity that has erected and donated 50 such structures at U.S. military and veterans’ facilities since 1991. The three new Fisher Houses were built at a total cost of $20 million.

 The two-story buildings will replace two smaller Fisher Houses at the nearby Walter Reed Army Medical Center that are scheduled to close when Walter Reed merges with the Navy hospital in Bethesda by next September. Seventy-six Fisher House suites will then be available for families of patients at the new Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

   Obama, flanked by Navy Secretary Ray Mabus and foundation chairman Ken Fisher at a chilly outdoor ceremony, said Fisher Houses have saved 130,000 families more than $150 million in lodging costs since 1991. They enable spouses, children and parents to stay comfortably for weeks in the national capital area just minutes from their loved ones’ bedsides.

“That is what Fisher House provides for so many military families — the chance to be together when they need each other most,” Mrs. Obama said.

Spc. Michael Proctor, 34, and his wife, Maria, moved into a Fisher House on Nov. 14 after the Army medic stationed in Italy was diagnosed with cancer that had spread from his leg to his liver.

He’s set for surgery at Walter Reed this month. Maria, who is expecting their baby daughter in March, is getting prenatal care at the naval hospital.

“We’re very grateful,” Proctor said. “Even though my unit would reimburse me hotels, like $200 a day, it would really put a burden on us if we had to pay that out of pocket.”

Former Marine Lt. Walter Vine and his wife, Sephora, an Army sergeant, live in nearby Laurel, Md. But they are staying at a Fisher House in Bethesda until their prematurely born daughter, Jadzia, born Oct. 22, is strong enough to go home. The difference between a two-minute trip across the street and a 30-to-60-minute drive from home became clear when the baby’s health faltered critically last week.

 “It might have been our last chance to say goodbye,” Walter Vine said.

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