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Homes for our troops-disabled or injured
Homes for Our Troops

s Gunnery Sergeant Michael Knowlton scrolled through pictures he took during his deployment for Operation Iraqi Freedom, one photo in particular stood out. The image—all too familiar to Americans who have stayed tuned in to the reports returning from the front lines—was that of four U.S. Marines and a humvee with the engine blown out, the result of triggering a land mine that had been buried by insurgents. The blast, which destroyed the front of the vehicle, also shot shrapnel through the front passenger seat. Had the seat been occupied, as it typically is, the Marine sitting there would have likely sustained extensive injuries. Fortunately, the passenger seat was vacant and the faces on the four Marines tell a different story—one in which all escaped the blast with only minor injuries.

In the fight against terror, each day sets the backdrop for stories of survival, near misses and victories large or small, and each day also poses an immeasurable risk to those in action. John Gonsalves has become all too familiar with those risks. One evening late in 2003, Gonsalves was watching the news as soldiers were being interviewed about a recent insurgent attack on their convoy. “One of the humvees their buddy was driving had been hit by a rocket-propelled grenade,” Gonsalves recalls, “and they weren’t sure if he was alive.” When the wounded soldier was finally pulled from the vehicle, it became apparent that both of his legs had been severed in the ambush.

When confronted with the harsh reality of war, many change the channel; the grim presentation had an opposite effect on Gonsalves. “It got me thinking,” he says, “what happens from there? What resources are available to soldiers such as this?” Gonsalves, who had been involved in construction for nearly 20 years, decided to volunteer his time and expertise with an organization specifically devoted to building accessible homes for servicemen and women who acquire severe disabilities while in the line of duty. “At that point I assumed there was already such an organization in existence. I’d find out who to contact and just go help.” He was shocked to learn that there was no such organization. Although his original intent was to simply volunteer a few weeks of his time, he realized that establishing a new program would inspire people to action; in February 2004 he founded Homes For Our Troops, a nonprofit organization.

With a plan in place, Gonsalves began searching for a recipient for the first home. One evening, as he was watching the NBC Nightly News, the host Brian Williams was at Walter Reed Medical Center speaking to Sergeant Peter Damon, an Army soldier who had lost both of his arms in the war on terror. “I remembered watching the interview with the soldier and thinking, This is exactly why I wanted to put this together.” When it was then mentioned that the soldier was from Brockton, Massachusetts, two towns from where Gonsalves grew up, he felt things falling into place.

Prior to Damon’s deployment to Iraq he had been living with his girlfriend (whom he has since married) and their two children in an apartment. In an effort to save money while he was overseas, his family moved in with his mother. The first meeting between Gonsalves and Damon took place while the soldier was on a convalescent leave from Walter Reed Medical Center. As they talked, Damon expressed uncertainty about his family’s future and where they would live. “With his injury, it put him in a situation that was tough,” says Gonsalves, “so we offered to build him a house.”

And build him a house they did. With assistance from Homes For Our Troops, Damon was able to move his family into a beautiful three-bedroom ranch-style home with a garage. Of course, this wasn’t just a typical home, but rather one that had been customized to meet Damon’s special needs. In addition to meeting the visitability requirements of a no-step entrance, wider doorways and an accessible bathroom, Gonsalves and the team of volunteer contractors and builders also included a proximity reader. The reader, a small device that Damon keeps on him, automatically opens the front door when he comes within a certain proximity, allowing him entrance into his home and the ability to easily welcome in guests. An open (hallway-free) floor plan, lever door handles and slide-outs in the kitchen cabinets make the family quarters accessible for Damon. Body sprays in the shower and a digitally controlled, paper-free toilet-bidet combination round out the accessibility features in the bathroom.

To date, four projects have been completed (including two featured on ABC’s hit Extreme Makeover: Home Edition) and two more are nearing completion. The organization has recently purchased a home in Virginia that will be renovated to accommodate its future homeowner’s disabilities, and this year it expects to start five or six additional projects nationwide. Because of the extent of the special features recipients require for total accessibility, Homes For Our Troops prefers to build its homes from the ground up. However, finding land can become an obvious obstacle in the current real estate climate. “Real estate right now is very expensive, and that’s been one of the hardest parts,” admits Gonsalves.

Homes for Our Troops reaches out to all branches of the military, and while the initial focus has been on seriously injured service members returning home from the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, the organization will consider granting assistance to veterans who acquired severe disabilities from any wars or foreign conflicts. Because of the scope of his vision and its financial demands—homes are given to the injured service members completely free of charge—Gonsalves realizes that ultimately land won’t be their only obstacle. “Outside of acquiring the land, the main thing is raising enough money. There are so many veterans who have been injured; this is really going to take tens of millions of dollars,” he says.

For Homes For Our Troops, the more people who hear about the program the better. But as the general public hears about the organization, so do those coming back from war with severe injuries and lacking a place they can call home. “You come back with a complete change of lifestyle, but you still want your life to be as normal as possible,” shares Army Sergeant Joseph Bozik, who had both legs and his right arm amputated as a result of injuries sustained in Iraq. “Homes for Our Troops is helping soldiers adjust. When you’re at the hospital, everyone is very helpful and you have a very caring team around you all the time. But then you go home, and when you can’t access your house, the memories you had there seem to go away. Homes for Our Troops, through building adaptive homes, is helping build the foundation for the new memories you will create in your life.”

As demand builds, how will recipients be selected? “We try to establish who’s in the most need, and it’s not an easy thing to do. We look at the severity of the injury, their family situation, living situation and things like that,” says Gonsalves. “We try to make sure we do it in a fair way, but also in a way where we can help the person who’s in the most critical need.”

America is the land of the free and the home of the brave; the land may not be free, but thanks to this organization, the brave will have homes.

by Romney Snyder

For more information on Homes for Our Troops, visit
www.HomesForOurTroops.org
or call 866.7.TROOPS


ABILITY Magazine

Other articles in the Natalie Glebova issue include Letter from the Editor — The Impact of AIDS; Senator Harkin — Emergency Preparedness Planning; Headlines — Breast Cancer, FDA Ruling on Trans Fat; Humor — Clean Up on Aisle 5!; ABILITY Magazine — 15th Anniversary Retrospective; International Travel — Ten Minutes ’til Takeoff; HIV/AIDS — Top 10 Myths; Employment — Creating a 30-Day Plan; Volunteers with Disabilities — It’s All About Inclusion; Accessible Smiles — Dentistry for All; Recipes — Healthy Drinks to Get Through the Day; Events and Conferences... subscribe


More excerpts from the Natalie Glebova issue:

Natalie Glebova — Speaks About AIDS Activism, Relationships and Her Russian Roots

Homes for Our Troops Serving the Military

Paul Orfalea — Kinko’s Founder Speaks About Dyslexia

Winter Paralympics — Let the Games Begin

Panama Canal Cruise — Holland America Line

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