Group effort builds paralyzed Iraq veteran a home
Nonprofit coordinates donations by local businesses
Posted Thursday, December 6, 2007
MILFORD -- For Sgt. Jason Nielson, Oct. 3, 2005, was a typical day in Baghdad.
His Arizona National Guard military police unit was patrolling U.S. supply routes and had stopped traffic while bomb-disposal specialists cleared a homemade roadside bomb.
The all-clear was given and Nielson had loaded his troops into their truck and was turning to get in himself when he was shot by a sniper. The bullet went in through his side, where his body armor didn't protect him.
He was flown by helicopter to a base at Camp Liberty and put in a medically-induced coma to help doctors treat his injuries, which included damage to his spleen, a fractured vertebrae and spinal cord damage that has left him partially paralyzed below the waist.
While Nielson was unconscious, Army officials summoned his wife, Krista, to Germany to be by his side, then reversed the decision, saying doctors had stabilized his condition.
Nielson regained consciousness in Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., and started down the slow, ongoing road to recovery.
"It never stops," Nielson said. "Some days are better than others. The biggest thing is learning to live with the pain. I can't really describe it, but it's always there."
Because his injuries affected his body's ability to handle heat, the Nielsons had to give up their native Arizona. They moved to Harrington to be near members of Krista's family who took care of their son, Devin, while Krista was with her husband in Washington.
But the home they bought there needed work to accommodate Nielson's wheelchair.
On Wednesday, the Nielsons, along with representatives from Homes for Our Troops, Lacrosse Homes and dozens of subcontractors and politicians, celebrated a milestone on the family's road to recovery with a housewarming party in a new, custom-built home that was given to the family free of charge.
While Nielson was in Walter Reed, Krista learned of Homes for Our Troops, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit that works with local contractors to make homes handicapped-accessible or to build new homes for disabled troops.
Kirt Rebello, the group's vice president and chief project officer, said Nielson's injuries qualified him for the group's help.
Rebello said the organization got started when its president, John Gonsalves, saw a news report about wounded veterans coming home. Gonsalves wanted to donate a home to a wounded vet and when he learned no organization existed to provide such a service, he began the process of setting up Homes for Our Troops.
The charity helps only veterans who are classified as "severely wounded" and whose homes would need extensive modifications to be livable. Of the estimated 32,000 wounded troops who have come home from Afghanistan or Iraq, Rebello estimated 2,000 to 3,000 meet the program's guidelines.
"When we learned of Jason and his injuries, there was no question," Rebello said. "We moved him off our waiting list as soon as we could."
Krista Nielson said she learned of that decision as they were in the process of moving from Arizona to Delaware.
"They were great," she said. "When they called, I told them we were moving and they said 'No problem. Call us when you're settled in and we'll send someone out to look things over.' "
Once the Nielsons were moved in, representatives of Lacrosse Homes inspected their house and decided it would be less expensive to build a new house than to rehabilitate the one they were living in.
"It was an easy decision," said Lindsay Dixon, Lacrosse Homes' president. "Why put a Band-Aid on the old house when we could give them a fresh start?"
Nielson was stunned.
"When they said that, my jaw dropped," he said. "I didn't know what to say. ... I can't describe how wonderful it is to know my family will be secure and have a home. We've got a lot of bills and it's good to know we don't have to worry about this."
The Nielsons' house in the Blueberry Hill development is the 18th home Homes for Our Troops has built or rehabilitated since its inception in 2004. Rebello said another 20 projects are under way and the group has a waiting list of about 40. More than 50 businesses and subcontractors chipped in on the Nielsons' project, which was built at no cost to the charity.
"Because of the spirit of this community," Rebello said, "we'll be able to move another family off our waiting list and start a project for them."
William Sego of Greenwood was part of the team from Lacrosse that worked on the home. He met the family at the groundbreaking ceremony for the house in May and saw them a few times while the house was going up.
"They seem like a really nice family and I know it's got to be exciting to be getting something like this," he said. "I didn't know there was something like this group when we started, but I'm glad we were able to help somebody like this."
Nielson, who draws an Army disability pension because of his injuries, undergoes physical therapy three days a week and will enter vocational rehabilitation classes next year. He said his goal is to work with a group, such as the Paralyzed Veterans of America, helping other wounded vets. He's not bitter about his injury or his service.
"I always knew something like this could happen," he said. "I joined up because I love my country and wanted to help protect my family. It's important. ... If I had to do it all over again, I would and, if I were able, I'd join up again now."
From October 2005 until January, Krista Nielson's life revolved around taking care of her husband and their infant daughter, Hailey.
Now that Jason has recovered to the point where he can drive a handicapped-modified car to his appointments, Krista has started working again at a local insurance agency -- an important step in her own recovery from the ordeal.
Leaving the desert for Sussex County is a change, she said, but she likes her new community.
"The people here have been very friendly and accepting," she said. "When you drive down the street, your neighbors wave at you and, believe me, you never saw that in Phoenix."
Contact Patrick Jackson at 678-4274 or email@example.com.