Fine Living: A home for those who fought for ours
'WHEN YOU think of Independence Day, you think of American flags being proudly unfurled," Vicki Thomas of Homes for our Troops says. She's right - American flags, picnics, fireworks and the ability to live freely.
You don't necessarily think of the veterans who fought for that freedom and, in the process, lost part of theirs.
For 27 severely-injured veterans, the unfurling of our American flag at the site of their future handicapped-accessible home symbolizes a different type of Independence Day.
It's freedom from worrying about a mortgage, trying to live in a conventional rental home work when they've lost their sight or are confined to a wheelchair and, in some cases, it means the freedom from being confined to a nursing home.
"You never know what kind of a battlefield these veterans move into when they come back home," Thomas says. "Making it easier on them and their families can free the tension in the household."
Thanks to Taunton, Mass., contractor John Gonsalves, these 27 veterans get to do just that: move into new barrier- and mortgage-free homes that will help ease any tension and allow them to age-in-place.
In 2004, upon discovering that most veterans returning with brain injuries or missing limbs or vision couldn't afford a home, Gonsalves founded the nonprofit Homes for our Troops and has since enlisted the help of corporate donors, local builders, suppliers and laborers and community volunteers in 26 states - including California - to build free, state-of-the art accessible homes for the most severely injured veterans.
"We really employ unique products that enable veterans and their caregivers the ability to function with a greater amount of ease," Thomas says, citing customized special lifts and hands-free locks. "There are no limits to what we can do," Gonsalves says, and with an yet-to-be announced $1 million grant, all new homes will be eco-friendly.
"Supporting the troops is not a left thing, it's not a right thing, it's the right thing," he offers. "As Americans, we have a responsibility to these soldiers and their families."
He figures 2,000 veterans will have injuries severe enough for the HFOT program. His goal over the next three years is to build 100 accessible homes; 24 are in the pipeline now.
One of those will be for 23-year old U.S. Marine Corp. Evan Morgan. Three years ago, while on his second tour of duty in Iraq, Morgan's Humvee was struck by an exploding roadside bomb leaving him without either of his legs or the sight in his right eye.
He spent almost 11Ú2 years recovering in hospitals before returning to the rented home in Bakersfield he shares with his wife, Jillian, and their infant daughter Sophie. He's philosophical about it, saying that "you can't change the past, so you do what you can with what you've been handed."
For Morgan, that means using both prosthetics and a wheelchair to get around these days. They were factor in the custom design of his 1,800 square-foot, three-bedroom, two-bathroom house built on a parcel of donated land. Among other conveniences, it'll have wide halls and doorways, lower countertops, and a roll-in shower.
Morgan and his family aren't the only ones experiencing a new level of freedom in their lives. Sgt. Peter Damon, who loved working with his hands, was repairing a tire on a Blackhawk helicopter in Iraq when it exploded and blew off his arms and when Spc. Pfc. Russell Kyle Burleson, a former high school football star, returned home to Louisiana, paralyzed from the neck down, he was confined to a small room in the 900-square foot home he shared with his parents, wife and two children. There wasn't an emergency generator or even enough electrical outlets for the 14 medical devices he needed. Both veterans are now living in new HFOT homes.
Athletes have stepped up to the plate, too. Every time Cincinnati Reds player Bronson Arroyo pitches a strike-out this season, his pledge of $100 goes to the cause and, for the last three years, golfer Phil Mickelson has donated $100 for each birdie and $500 for each eagle he's made.
In 2005, that amount, along with some added prize money, totaled $127,000. He's been joined in his efforts by the PGA which has held fundraisers and by golfers across the country who have held golf tournaments and donated the proceeds.
Each new home starts with a groundbreaking ceremony and an American flag hoisted up a new pole, followed by a three-day construction blitz, a volunteer day where unskilled individuals help with landscaping and painting, and a formal presentation of a new flag, usually one that's flown over the Capitol Building, along with the home's deed and keys, to the veteran.
This week Gonsalves is in Golden, Colo., at the construction blitz of veteran Travis Strong who'll receive his flag, deed and keys in late August during the Democratic National Convention when delegates will be invited to tour his new accessible and green home.
To keep it bipartisan, Republican delegates will be invited to tour the new accessible and green home of Minneapolis veteran Marcus Kuboy in September.
"John (Gonsalves) might think he is just building houses, but he's doing a lot more," observes Army Master Sergeant Luis Rodriquez who received his new home in Clarksville, Tenn. "He's rebuilding their confidence and, in turn, they will return that confidence back to their own families."
PJ Bremier writes on home, garden, design and entertaining topics every Saturday. She may be contacted at P.O. Box 412, Kentfield 94914 or firstname.lastname@example.org.