Paralyzed Marine Cpl. Visnu Gonzalez, a native of the Dominican Republic, will soon have two places in North Jersey to call home, thanks to the hard work of some local volunteers and a Massachusetts-based non-profit group that helps disabled veterans.
And the two groups are asking for even more support from the community that has embraced the veteran as their own.
Homes for Our Troops -- which is building 30 wheelchair-accessible homes across the country for severely wounded veterans at no cost to their families -- purchased a $255,000 New Milford property last week for Gonzalez, an Iraq war veteran.
The non-profit group will hold a groundbreaking ceremony in June. Plans are being drawn up now, and construction on the home is expected to start this summer. It could take about a year to build the home, which will be on Eagle Avenue, near Fulton Street.
"We really need this to be a community effort," said John Gonsalves, the non-profit's founder. "We need people to make fund-raisers and for individuals to volunteer to help build or donate items. We think it's important for the veterans to know the community is behind them in whatever way they can be."
But next month, when the highly decorated veteran arrives in North Jersey, he will settle first in another home with relatives. Numerous volunteer construction workers from the region renovated the family's Hillsdale home to make the master bedroom wheelchair-accessible for Gonzalez. The veteran and his mother, Maria Baez, will live with his aunt and uncle, Haydee and Ray Dominguez, in their Forest Drive home while they wait for the new home to be completed.
Gonzalez, who was born and raised in the Dominican Republic, said he chose Bergen County because of its proximity to his relatives and access to high-quality medical care. "I'm excited to get my life started," he said during a recent telephone interview from the Dominican Republic. "I'm just happy about this. I don't know what else to say. I will have to figure out a way to say thank you to everyone who made this possible."
Shot by a sniper
Although he cannot use his legs at all and has limited mobility in his arms, Gonzalez has learned how to move his wrists to type -- and computers are his passion. He hopes to further his education and ultimately use computer skills to help other veterans. His goal is to establish an online blog to share his journey with others.
He was manning a machine gun in Fallujah three years ago when a sniper shot him in the neck, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down. After receiving months of medical treatment in Florida hospitals, he had to return home to the Dominican Republic because he had nowhere else to go.
Relatives in Hillsdale and New Milford begged him to stay with them, but their homes, with narrow hallways and tiny bathrooms, were impossible for him to maneuver in a wheelchair.
Baez contacted numerous people and organizations until she discovered Homes for Our Troops and Hope for Our Warriors, groups that assist severely injured veterans. Homes for Our Troops offered to build a custom home for Gonzalez at no cost.
"We're going to do this," said Gonsalves, of Homes for Our Troops. "This story will have a happy ending."
Gonsalves said he was optimistic that he would line up the needed corporate sponsors and volunteers to donate funds, materials and time. "We are hoping people in Bergen County will be generous to our cause," he said.
All on one level
Architects' plans for Gonzalez's house are not completed, but many homes for wheelchair-bound veterans tend to be ranches, he said.
"Everything would be on one level so he can get in and out easily. Even kitchen cabinets slide in and out easily so he won't have to reach or stand. All doors are 36 inches wide to accommodate his chair," Gonsalves said.
Homes for Our Troops covered the bulk of the costs to purchase the new property, but several local organizations and individuals provided the remaining support, he said.
Among the groups that stepped forward to help was the Cresskill American Legion Camp Merritt Post 21, which raised $10,000 toward the home purchase. "This is what we're here for as Legionnaires -- to help our heroes," said American Legion member Mike Monahan.
Tom Berardo was one of the contractors who donated time to help create a wheelchair-accessible space for Gonzalez in his uncle's home.
"I feel it's the least we can do to help these kids who've given up almost everything for us," he said. "I've donated my time because his family can't afford all the costs for his housing. The government is just not able to provide for everything, and I strongly believe it's up to us to do the rest."
Baez, who flew to North Jersey Friday to discuss the plans for the home, was overwhelmed by the support.
"I feel like I'm dreaming," she said during a recent telephone interview from the Dominican Republic. "So many people pulled together to make this happen. They donated wood, tiles, materials and contractors donated their time. All different people are doing fund-raisers to help us. We have met the most giving, most beautiful people. I am in awe of their goodwill and support."
Baez said she and her son are looking forward to the day when he can go in and out of the accessible house himself, just like a "regular person."
"To me, this isn't just about Visnu; it's about all our injured veterans who come back from war and don't know where to turn," she said. "I want my son to have options and have a home. He didn't want to come home this way. He just got a bad deck of cards."
For the first time since her son was hit, Baez said she feels a sense of ease and the genuine belief that things will get better.
"Somebody up there is listening to my prayers, and has sent me angels."
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How to help
To make donations of time and materials for Marine Cpl. Visnu Gonzalez's home in New Milford, go to Homesforourtroops.org or contact Director of Projects and Veterans Affairs Kirt Rebello at 866-7-TROOPS (866-787-6677).
A group of residents in Bergen County, with the participation of Gonzalez and his mother, Maria Baez, has come together to raise awareness and funds for Homes for Our Troops. The goal of the group is to help other veterans around the country get off the waiting list for homes. Future local activities will be listed on corporalgonzalez.org or contact email@example.com
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Homes for Our Troops is planning a Welcome Home and Groundbreaking Ceremony at the New Milford property for Marine Cpl. Visnu Gonzalez. The tentative date is June 3.
Building plans for the Eagle Avenue home are being prepared now, and construction is expected to begin this summer.