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Move to North County will bring wounded veteran full-circle
FALLBROOK ---- Sgt. 1st Class Jacque Keeslar could never have anticipated that a chapter of his life that began a few miles from the Euphrates River in Iraq would conclude in this rural town of rolling hills and avocado groves.
It has been a long three years, but what began with a wounded soldier in the Iraqi desert is about to end with an elated homeowner.
When a nonprofit group that builds homes for wounded veterans gets done with Keeslar's new house in Fallbrook later this year, it will mark the end of a saga that started with an explosion.
"The guys in the vehicle behind me said the blast was just astronomical. One of the tires on my vehicle went a good 500 yards out into the desert," said Keeslar, who lost the lower part of both of his legs in the explosion and now wears two prostheses. "After the bomb went off, I was kind of in and out of consciousness. But it was deafening, as far as I can remember."
In 2006, Keeslar had been in the Army for 16 years, but it was his first tour in Iraq. He was a month away from the end of a 12-month deployment when a roadside bomb tore apart the Stryker armored vehicle under his command.
No one was killed, but Keeslar, 39, was severely wounded and eventually found himself at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., where he and his wife, Vanessa, now live.
He still serves in the Army as an officer in the Warrior Care and Transition Office, where he helps other wounded Iraq war veterans.
While in the hospital, Keeslar heard recovering soldiers talking about a nonprofit organization that builds specially adapted homes for severely wounded veterans at no charge.
He looked up the group, Homes For Our Troops, and applied.
"We didn't really think much of it, then at the beginning of this year, we got a phone call ... and they said they were wanting to get us in this year," said Keeslar.
Vicki Thomas, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts-based nonprofit group, said last week that her organization is planning to build more than 30 homes this year, including Keeslar's.
"When the home is completed, it's turned over to the veteran at no cost to them," Thomas said. "So the last thing they have to worry about is, where's the mortgage coming from?"
While the Keeslars haven't decided on a piece of land, the combined value of the property and house is likely to be several hundred thousand dollars when their new home is finished.
Homes For Our Troops held a registration day at a hotel in Temecula on Wednesday, seeking contractors willing to donate manpower to the project.
A handful of local real estate agents are also working with Homes For Our Troops to help the Keeslars find a piece of property they like in Fallbrook.
The group was founded in 2004 by John Gonsalves, a Massachusetts resident with 20 years in the construction industry who wanted to help injured servicemen and women returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
A majority of the veterans who receive assistance from the group are wheelchair-users, and thus require living quarters with wide hallways, specialized showers and wheelchair-compatible kitchens, among other necessities, Thomas said.
"We generally choose veterans who are severely injured," Thomas said.
Keeslar said he removes his prosthetic legs and uses a wheelchair to get around at home, which for now is an apartment in Washington, D.C.
He said most homes are inadequate for the needs of someone with his disabilities, and said the walls in his apartment have the scuff marks to prove it.
The Keeslars were hesitant at first, thinking, "If somebody's giving you something, then they're expecting something in return."
But the couple quickly discovered there wasn't anything expected in return, and began looking forward to living in a home built specifically to accommodate Jacque Keeslar's physical challenges.
"It was difficult for us to wrap our brains around this gift that they're going to be giving us," he said. "It was huge."
Keeslar said last week that he and his wife chose Fallbrook because they have family in California and like the climate in North County.
A friendly man with the demeanor of a battle-hardened soldier, Keeslar grew up in Big Bear and spent most of his life in Southern California.
He said he will be transferring this summer to Balboa Naval Hospital, where he will work for the Army for one more year before retiring from the service.
Thomas said Homes For Our Troops relies entirely on local volunteers to complete its projects, meaning the group will need more than 100 volunteers from North County and Temecula to help build the Keeslars' home.
"What we do is meet with the veteran, find out the veteran's handicaps, then ask them, 'Where do you want to live?' " she said. "They tell us, and we generally show up in a community and start with nothing. We find a contractor who'll work with us, who volunteers their time and service, we acquire the land and do the permitting."
Once a piece of land has been chosen and purchased by Homes For Our Troops, the organization will need volunteers to help ---- from professional builders to unskilled laborers who can help paint and install landscaping, officials said.
The houses usually take four months to complete, after which the family and sponsors gather for an unveiling ceremony.
Thomas said the whole process should be completed this year.
"It has worked in community after community," Thomas said. "When we leave, we have an entire community that has embraced that veteran, welcomed them home. It is so amazing to see communities show up and say, 'How can I help?' "
On Thursday, the Keeslars toured several pieces of property in Fallbrook and De Luz, looking for a potential site for their new home.
"We're finding that we really enjoy Fallbrook," Keeslar said. "It really has a good flavor to it, and we're excited about coming into the community."
He said he still has trouble comprehending the enormity of receiving a brand-new, customized home for free.
"It's really kind of like winning the lottery, in a sense," he added. "But it's really making sure we're going to be able to live the way we need to live, without any obstacles."
For more information, including how to help in the effort to build the Keeslars a new home, visit www.HomesForOurTroops.org.