3 Westlake Village pals want to help seriously injured vets
Three Westlake Village pals plan to walk from Mexico to Canada this summer to benefit military veterans who can't walk at all. Or see. Or hug a loved one.
Roommates Paul Rose, 22, Scott Williams, 23, and Matt Walker, 21, plan to spend 16 weeks walking the length of the Pacific Crest Trail to benefit "Homes For Our Troops," a nonprofit organization that builds or adapts handicapped-accessible homes for disabled veterans. The young men are calling their effort Trek for Troops.
The trio of buddies decided to make the 2,650-mile odyssey for the cause primarily because Williams is an Iraq war veteran, and he's seen too many of his fellow soldiers come home only to struggle with disabilities.
"What really irks me is AIG gets bailed out and goes on corporate retreats, and our men and women who come back (from combat) don't ask for a dime," Williams said.
They plan to raise money to benefit veterans like Cpl. Evan Morgan of Bakersfield, who is getting a home constructed for him through Homes For Our Troops.
At 25, Morgan is just a few years older than Walker, Williams and Rose, but he faces life without both legs and sight in one eye. Morgan was injured Jan. 1, 2005, when his truck was hit by a roadside bomb while he was serving in Iraq.
"They've thought up a lot of things to make running and walking easier," said Morgan, who uses prosthetic legs. "But there are things that are hard, like squatting down to pick up your baby daughter."
Rose, Walker and Williams don't know Morgan, but as an Iraq war veteran himself, Williams knows people like Morgan who left whole but came home broken in body, spirit, or both.
Williams, an ex-patriated British citizen, served in the United States Navy for four years after arriving in the U.S. with his family in 2000. After an eight-month tour in Iraq in 2004, Williams returned to the U.S. with memories he never wanted, like the time he lost several U.S. Marine buddies in a helicopter crash in 2004.
"We had to break into their lockers," Williams said, his eyes reddening with tears. "Most of them were in my barracks."
Williams decided he wanted to do something for the soldiers who weren't as lucky as he was to have come home whole.
A song for the troops
Williams and his buddies, who are all Westlake High School graduates, performed a comedic song for their cause, which they sang at their alma mater's holiday show.
The men, who are now all in college, became friends after joining the high school choir. Since they all sing, they decided composing an original song was an ideal way to let people know about their project.
Rose's dad, Alan Rose, is Westlake High School's choral director, so they asked Alan if they could sing it during intermission at the Dec. 4 holiday show.
After hearing the song, the elder Rose was impressed and gave the guys the go-ahead.
Dressed in U.S. Army fatigue pants, T-shirts, and steel-toed combat boots, the three amigos marched up on stage after Alan introduced them to the audience.
"They are going to try to raise $100K," the elder Rose told an audience of about 150 people. "In this economy, it will be amazing if they can do it."
With their faces painted in black and green camouflage, Walker, Rose and Williams created quite a contrast from the rest of the performers, who were dressed in tuxedos, gowns and choir robes.
The song they sang a cappella was a sort of John Philip Sousa/Temptations hybrid, with some doo-wop thrown in.
"One, two, three four, Trek for Troops is at your door," the guys sang, turning and gesturing with choreography they had rehearsed in the men's room just before the performance.
The song met with enthusiastic applause and invitations from other groups and corporations to perform at their holiday gatherings. The friends say they'll sing in as many venues as they can to get their word out.
Homes for Our Troops
Massachusetts-based Homes For Our Troops was founded in 2004 by a Massachusetts contractor named John Gonsalves. Gonsalves had heard of an American solder who had lost both legs in the Iraq war and realized there was a need there that the U.S. government couldn't cover.
"There is a specially adapted housing grant (wounded veterans) receive, but it's a maximum of $60K, and that's not going to cover the work to adapt these homes if they even own a home," said Dawn Teixeira, vice president and chief information officer of Homes For Our Troops. "Many of these soldiers are so young they don't own a home."
Wounded veterans usually can't continue to serve in the military, so they have to vacate base housing and hunt for an adaptive home, which is difficult, she said. Through donations, Homes For Our Troops is able to cover any amount the adapted housing grant doesn't cover.
Morgan, who has a wife of three years and 19-month-old daughter, was relieved when Homes For Our Troops agreed to build him a manufactured adaptive home in Bakersfield.
Morgan said there are everyday tasks that now give him trouble — tasks he used to take for granted.
"You can't get a lot of things from a high drawer," said Morgan, who spends most of his time in a wheelchair. "And there are no cutouts under the sink (for the wheelchair). So when I'm shaving, I'm 2 1/2 feet away from my mirror."
Morgan said he's always been pretty matter-of-fact about his disability.
"There was never really an ‘Oh God' kind of moment for me," he said. "I don't deal with a lot of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). I don't have a lot of nightmares."
Truck hit by a bomb
Morgan does remember that New Year's Day when he was driving in a truck convoy to assist another truck that had driven over a mine. The convoy was on its way back when Morgan's truck hit a bomb.
"Honestly, I can't tell you what happened. I blacked out for the explosion," he said. "I woke up when they were dragging me out of the vehicle."
Morgan couldn't pin down where the pain was, but he knew his right leg was severed above the knee on impact.
He could not see out of his right eye as his fellow soldiers loaded him onto a transport helicopter to take him to a tent where Army surgeons worked on him. He would later learn he was permanently blinded, but for the moment, he was in shock.
"I remember them cutting my clothes off me and being cold," he said.
After a stay in a Baghdad hospital and a period of time in a hospital in Frankfurt, Germany, he was taken home to recuperate and come to terms with his new life.
He said the first time he realized his legs were gone was when the surgery was over. He moved the stumps of his legs and saw the blanket move, but not at the end of the bed where his feet should have been.
"I didn't know my face had been injured at all," he said. "I didn't shed many tears or anything."
A self-described easygoing guy, Morgan said he's simply taking this as a part of life, and refusing to dwell on the negative.
He runs triathlons with the use of special prosthetics, and rides an adaptive bike. He's gone back to school and says he's still figuring out the rest of his life with a new perspective.
"People who have had to deal with something at a young age you learn the secret to life is that it goes on and you have to take every day as it comes," he said.
Despite what happened to him, Morgan said, he is proud to have served his country.
"It wasn't a political thing for me," Morgan said. "I was serving a higher purpose. Serving something higher than myself."
Williams, Walker and Rose have a similar desire to serve a purpose greater than themselves. As they run seven miles a day to train for their hike, they also spend hours going door to door, trying to raise money for Trek for Troops. They are also seeking business sponsors and any donations of equipment or funds.
"All of us are independently broke," Paul said.
They're aware that charities are suffering in this economy, but they believe that people's desire to support the troops will prevail.
"If we can raise money in these times for this cause," Walker said, "it will truly be an accomplishment of something greater."
To donate to Trek for Troops, visit http://www.HomesForOurTroops.org/goto/TrekForTroops.