Volunteer army to build house for veteran
Frank Pierson recalls the moment clearly: One day in March 2008, he was in Baghdad, behind the wheel of a truck that was part of an Army convoy.
"We were driving past a checkpoint, and a big puff of smoke came up - we didn't even know we were being ambushed," the Cicero resident says. "When we drove out of the smoke, I went to stop the truck and didn't know why I couldn't stop it.
"I looked down and noticed my right leg was completely gone and part of my left leg was severely injured."
The "big puff of smoke" had been caused by an electronically fired projectile. What followed were 27 surgeries and 19 months of rehab in Germany and at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Today, minus his legs and dealing with other injuries from the blast, he lives with his wife, Arielle Carroll-Pierson, at her mother's home in Cicero.
It's home, but it's not easy. Even though the family has adapted the house to his needs somewhat, there are huge physical inconveniences. The only bedroom in the home that's vaguely accessible to him, for instance, is in the basement, and to reach it, Pierson climbs out of his wheelchair and scoots down the stairs and gets into another chair.
That's about to change: In a month or so, a building contractor and brigades of volunteers will begin construction on a place in Plainfield designed to accommodate his needs — a single-story, 2,600-square-foot home with roll-in shower, accessible kitchen, electronically activated doors, and numerous other features intended to simplify his daily life.
The Piersons won't pay a penny for it.
It will be a contribution from Homes for Our Troops, a Taunton, Mass., charity that since 2004 has built 51 houses for disabled veterans and has 32 others in various stages of construction around the country, at an average cost of $250,000 to $300,000, plus the cost of land.
The organization, which aids military veterans who have been severely injured while serving in a combat zone after Sept. 11, 2001, receives funding from corporate sponsorships and private donations, according to Vicki Thomas, a spokesman for the group.
But the projects depend on labor donated by contractors and skilled workers and from donated materials, she said. There are ways for friends, neighbors and total strangers to help too.
Homes for Our Troops got the word out recently on a Chicago radio station that it needed help for the Piersons' house. It will be the group's first effort in the Chicago area, though it recently completed a home for another veteran in Mahomet, Ill., near Champaign.
Though the organization is used to fielding an outpouring of support in the communities where the organization is building homes, Thomas said she was surprised at the immediate response from Chicago after the radio plea for help, when 548 individuals and companies responded.
As of last week, the group had 23 volunteer commitments from professionals in the building trades, including DeCraene Custom Homes of Joliet, which will donate its services as general contractor.
Homes for Our Troops has fine-tuned its construction formula into three parts, Thomas said.
"First, we have a three-day Build Brigade," consisting of the contractor's crew and other volunteers, she said. "In three days, the house goes from foundation to a complete (basic) structure — the exterior walls, roof trusses, roof shingles, windows, garage door, and so on. The home is airtight to the weather."
Then, she said, the contractor and volunteer professionals take over. "During the next 60 to 90 days, they work on the interior things: Electrical, donated. Heating and air conditioning, donated. Drywall, drywall labor, cabinetry, etc., donated," Thomas said.
Part three is a chance for anybody to join in, she said. That's Volunteer Day, when the group needs help with landscaping, cleaning and miscellaneous chores that remain.
Pierson said he is stunned at the speed with which the project is moving.
"It's been going 1,200 miles an hour since we got that first phone call" that the organization had agreed to build his house, Pierson said. And the physical independence gained from the new house, he said, probably will enable him to pursue his next goal — going to school to study automotive electronics.
Thomas said the group is still seeking help from construction pros and non-pros for the Pierson project. Details are at HomesForOurTroops.org.
She said the downturn in the housing business has had one positive effect for her organization — homebuilding professionals tell her they now have time to help. And they say the homes they're building are a sign that public attitudes have changed since an earlier, less compassionate time.
"Many people who volunteer to work on these homes are Vietnam veterans," Thomas said. "They said they've sworn that they wouldn't have another war where veterans were treated as they were when they returned from Vietnam."
Hear Mary Umberger during "The Noon Show" on Tuesdays and Thursdays and at 10:30 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays on WGN-AM 720. Write to her at Money & Real Estate, Chicago Tribune, 435 N. Michigan Ave., 4th Floor, Chicago, IL 60611 or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.