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On a rainy Sunday afternoon in early June, a couple hundred people gathered on a dirt lot in New Milford, N.J., some huddled under tents and umbrellas, others braving the steady drizzle -- some in military uniform, others dressed in shorts and T-shirts. In the background, orchestra strains of “America the Beautiful” invoked the small-town spirit of the event.
Amidst the crowd was a young man partially slumped in a wheelchair. He sat beside a podium where politicians, girl scouts, military officers and others celebrated the groundbreaking of what -- in several months -- will be his new home.
That man is Cpl. Visnu Gonzalez of the United States Marines. Just over three years ago, while serving in Iraq, he was paralyzed from the upper chest down when a sniper’s bullet severed his spinal cord. Despite surgical attempts to stabilize his vertebra, Gonzalez remains confined to a wheelchair. He was awarded the Purple Heart in 2004.
Thanks to Homes for Our Troops (HFOT), a Taunton, Mass.-based non-profit organization that builds and adapts homes for severely injured veterans, Gonzalez will soon be able to move into his own specially equipped home, and it won’t cost him anything.
“It’s just an honor for me that they could find a place like this for me,” Gonzalez said, addressing the crowd that June day. “It’s a bit overwhelming.”
This project is one of 20 in the works through HFOT, which broke ground on its first home in 2005 and has since completed homes for 15 veterans in California, Connecticut, Georgia, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Montana, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Virginia. The group raises donations of money, building materials and professional labor to build new homes and/or adapt existing ones for handicapped accessibility. HFOT was founded by John Gonsalves, a licensed construction supervisor and home improvement contractor who, after 9/11, wanted to find a way to help injured U.S. soldiers. Since he couldn’t find an organization to join, he decided to start one himself -- incorporating HFOT in March 2004.
Each HFOT project is built to meet the injured veteran’s specific needs, and many are specially equipped for wheelchair access with features that include widened doorways, roll-in showers, open floor plans, pull-down kitchen cabinets and ADA-compliant appliances. Here are some other examples of HFOT projects:
Spc. Russell Kyle Burleson of the 1st Cavalry Division was shot by a sniper and left a quadriplegic on a ventilator. HFOT built him a handicap accessible home in Springhill, La., with a rail system, automatic door openers and a generator room to back up his medical needs in an emergency.
In 2004, Joe Dan “Doc” Worley, a Navy Corpsman, was wounded in Iraq, losing his left leg while his right leg was severely damaged. HFOT purchased a home for the Worley family in Douglasville, Ga., installing a wheelchair ramp and widening the hallways to make it handicap accessible.
And, as documented in an episode of “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” Cpl. Bobby Isaacs of the 101st Airborne Division, Fort Campbell, Ky., was severely injured in Iraq in 2004 by a roadside bomb, undergoing 37 operations before HFOT helped renovate his Roxboro, N.C., home.
All told, HFOT has raised more than $10 million in cash and product donations, including a $3 million donation from an anonymous source in March. Still, the need remains greater than the funding. There are 20 injured veterans currently on a waiting list, and that number is growing all the time.