Wounded soldier and his family tour the home built just for them
MIDDLEBORO — In September 2008 Staff Sergeant Michael Downing was on his second deployment to Afghanistan when his vehicle was targeted by an improvised explosive device. Downing was in the gun turret that day and the force of the blast blew him 40 feet from the Humvee.
He returned to the family's three-story home in a wheelchair with both legs amputated below the knee. There, his wife Dawna Lee had to lift him up the stairs, one at a time, just to enable him to reach the bathroom.
Yesterday, at an emotional key ceremony in Middleboro, Downing, Dawna Lee and their four children - Jacqueline, Samantha, Jimmy and Alexandra - were handed the keys to a brand new single-level home with 3,000 square feet of living space, absolutely free of charge.
"I think it's really cool," 9 year-old Jimmy said. "Now Dad gets a floor that he can actually travel around on."
Constructed entirely with volunteer labor and donations, the ranch-style home was finished in just under three months, thanks to the backing of Homes For Our Troops, a non-profit organization based in Taunton that has built and donated specially adapted homes for disabled war veterans in more than 30 states.
In his remarks, John Gonsalves, founder of Homes for Our Troops, said that fundraising had been boosted by forming a partnership with the Credit Union National Association during the last election cycle that transcended politics.
"At both party conventions we formed a partnership to build homes in the host cities," he said. "This resulted in both parties putting their logos on the same piece of paper. That's the first time that ever happened."
Cape Cod Lumber company, where Dawna Lee Downing has worked for six years, received special praise from Gonsalves for all that it had donated. "You did most of it," Gonsalves told owner Tom McManus.
A special guest at the ceremony was newly-elected U.S. Sen. Scott Brown, himself a lieutenant colonel in the National Guard.
"It's such an honor to be here today with you and your family," Brown told Staff Sgt. Downing. "I just flew back yesterday and I wanted to come to say thank you to our brothers and sisters in arms and to the Homes for Our troops Organization and all the volunteers and contractors. To have this amazing house of love go up in such a short time is so wonderful, and I'm going to carry this back to Washington." Construction on the house began in bitter cold on Dec. 12 with over 200 people volunteering on site.
Six students from Billerica High School also came to Saturday's ceremony to present a $5,000 check to Homes for Our Troops and a check for $2,300 to the Downing family. That effort began after senior Mike Canty spotted a poster for Homes For Our Troops in a Dunkin' Donuts shop.
The general contractor on the project was the father and son team of Dominic and Matt Falconeiri of Falconeiri construction.
"It's been incredible," Dominic Falconeiri said. "As an American and a veteran it's been a privilege to see the amount of concern from the public who just wanted to be here to help you and your family," he told the Downing family.
After the key ceremony, the house was opened for public viewing. Sgt. Downing, who is still receiving treatment at Walter Reed hospital was also seeing his new home for the first time, here for the ceremony before returning to Walter Reed.
Surrounded by well wishers, the family watched as hundreds of people wandered from room to room.
"It's all been a bit overwhelming, but once the dust settles, my goal is to have the house ready for Mike to come home at Easter," Dawna Lee said.