Nonprofit donates home to injured Wisconsin veteran
Madison -- In five days, Chuck Isaacson would have left Afghanistan and the war for home.
It took the Army staff sergeant much longer, and when he did come home it was to a cramped apartment in Sun Prairie with a loft he can't get to because of his wheelchair.
But Isaacson, 29, and his wife, Brenda, will likely be in a new home by Christmas, and it will be built by strangers who showed up with tools and a place in their heart to give back to a wounded veteran who gave up the ability to walk.
Starting today, a build brigade of volunteers will descend on a one-acre lot in a Sun Prairie subdivision to frame the house and install doors, windows, siding and roof in the next three days. Preliminary work on the house began Wednesday. The home, sponsored by Homes for Our Troops, which donated roughly $100,000 to buy the lot, will feature accommodations for Isaacson's wheelchair.
Isaacson, who was paralyzed in a helicopter crash, is humbled by the outpouring of donated money and labor and knows he'll never meet many of those who are helping him go home to a beautiful house with a big backyard.
"All I can do is say thanks," he said. "People might not agree with the war, but they're still willing to help people wounded in the war."
Home for Our Troops, a nonprofit organization based in Massachusetts, is building 26 homes across the United States and has completed 32 for veterans severely injured in Iraq or Afghanistan. Isaacson's is the first in Wisconsin.
Veterans and their families pay nothing for the home, which is built with donated materials and labor. A flagpole is installed at each construction site, and a flag is presented to the veteran at the key ceremony when the house keys are turned over. There is no mortgage, and veterans must stay in the home for at least five years.
The organization works with the Veterans Administration to choose from applications submitted by the veterans or by someone on their behalf. Then Homes for Our Troops meets with the service member, determines the person's needs, asks where they want to live, finds a local builder willing to donate time, obtains building permits, buys land and arranges for donated labor and materials, spokeswoman Vicki Thomas said.
"I have never been involved in anything that touches my heart and makes me feel as good as I do when I see a family move in. I cannot to this day attend a key ceremony without crying," said Thomas, who grew up in Sun Prairie.
Isaacson and Brenda, a Westfield native, wanted to live in Sun Prairie because it's close to health care and VA services in Madison. Also, Isaacson is attending college in Madison, and his wife is a long-term substitute kindergarten teacher in the Sun Prairie Area School District.
The couple found out early this year that they had been chosen by Homes for Our Troops. The single-story ranch home will have four bedrooms, two full bathrooms, kitchen, dining room, breakfast room and living room with a gas fireplace in 2,377 square feet along with a two-car garage. To accommodate Isaacson, the kitchen will feature a sink and counters he can navigate with his wheelchair, an elevator to reach the basement and a roll-in shower.
"We wanted four bedrooms - one for us, two for future kids and one for an office," Isaacson said. "It's just what we wanted. A big lot. I want to get a dog, but I've got to work on the wife first."
Brookstone Homes of Oconomowoc is donating its services to oversee construction of the $350,000 home and property. The company's president is a Gulf War veteran who contacted Homes for Our Troops to volunteer. Subcontractors have been lined up in case not enough volunteers show, said Casey Masterson, director of marketing.
Once the three-day build brigade finishes constructing the exterior by this weekend, plumbers, electricians and other tradespeople who are volunteering their time will work on the interior.
"The idea of having Chuck and Brenda in there by Christmas is something we're all working for," Masterson said.
For Isaacson, a flight engineer on a Chinook helicopter, Feb. 18, 2007, was a regular day transporting service members from one spot to another in southern Afghanistan. But the aircraft suffered a mechanical failure during a snowstorm and the Chinook crashed, killing eight of the 22 people aboard. Isaacson woke up hanging outside the wreckage by his harness and realized he couldn't move his legs. Lying in 10 inches of snow, he waited several hours for help to arrive.
He was the only flight crew member to survive. Isaacson's lungs collapsed, and his injuries included a broken leg, broken ribs, broken neck and three fractures in his back. Doctors fused his spine from near the top of his neck to his lower back. Months of rehabilitation followed.
Now Isaacson, who is paralyzed from the waist down, is working toward two bachelor's degrees in computer science and technology management at Herzing College and drives a pickup truck with an electric boom lift for his wheelchair. He doesn't pity himself.
"I've never really had those thoughts. I wonder why I survived because everybody around me died," Isaacson said. "I have an opportunity a lot of other people don't have - to live."