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Home Project Offers Wounded Vet New Beginning

By Paul X. Rutz
American Forces Press Service

WOODBRIDGE, Va., Feb. 10, 2006 – As he maneuvered his wheelchair through rooms under renovation yesterday, former Army Staff Sgt. Eugene Simpson celebrated the purchase of his new house and raised awareness that the project still needs more help to reach its goal.

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Homes for Our Troops recently purchased this house in Woodbridge, Va., and has begun renovations to accommodate former Army Staff Sgt. Eugene Simpson's injuries. The sergeant's spine was severed by shrapnel when he was serving in Iraq. The renovation is expected to last four months. Photo by William D. Moss
  

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"It's a new beginning," said Simpson, who was paralyzed from the waist down in Tikrit, Iraq, April 7, 2004, by an improvised explosive device.

The house is in the first stages of remodeling to make it fully wheelchair accessible. With frames, kickboards and cabinets removed, Simpson can barely fit his wheelchair through doorways lined with ragged plaster and hallways covered with stock carpeting, and he can't enter his bathroom at all. That will all change with the rearrangement of a few walls.

"It's going to be different," Simpson said as he looked over the pipes in his kitchen. "It's going to be better."

Reconstruction will take about four months, depending on what type of volunteer efforts the group can muster here, said John Gonsalves. He's president and founder of Homes for Our Troops, a nonprofit group based in Massachusetts whose goal is to build quality housing for America's most severely wounded veterans.

"This is probably going to cost us another $75,000 on top of what we paid for the house," Gonsalves said. "As you can see, we're just getting started."

Funding for the project comes almost exclusively from donations from private citizens. The Department of Veterans Affairs does have a fund for housing wounded veterans, but it can only give half of what it costs the veteran to buy the house, and only up to $50,000. Since Homes for Our Troops does not charge veterans anything to build a house, the VA's charter does not allow it to help at all.

Therefore, a key to the group's success so far has been support from a wide variety of people. Celebrities such as musician Billy Joel and golfer Phil Mickelson have offered contributions and publicity, while people from across the nation have volunteered time, money, energy and building materials.

Craig Bennett, an architect based in McLean, Va., offered his services pro bono, doing the necessary drawings and structural studies for Simpson's house. Patrick Padburg, with 30 years' experience in construction, donated his time as project manager.

The American Legion Auxiliary here recently put on a fundraiser, raising over $10,000, Gonsalves said.

"There's a lot of great people in this country, and I've always known that," Gonsalves said. "But after starting Homes for Our Troops, it really hit home at how many great people there are."

The purchase of this house is a big milestone, he said. So far the group has been raising money and looking for a location near Woodbridge, a suburb in the Washington metropolitan area, for a year. Their first effort, looking for land on which to build a new house, took six months, and ended in disappointment.

"This was really a tough area to work," Gonsalves said of the real estate market here. "We looked around for some land, and I was able to find a two-acre parcel in the area, but it was $750,000.... That's why we decided to buy a home."

He said buying this house and refurbishing it will cost an estimated $435,000 when all is complete.

Since its inception in early 2004, Homes for Our Troops has completed six projects throughout the U.S., with four more currently in the works, including this one, but running his own nonprofit was something he never expected to be doing.

"This all got started after I saw a news report about a soldier who lost both of his legs in a Humvee attack," Gonsalves said. "At that point I was just looking to donate some time to an organization like Homes for Our Troops, and nobody had ever started one, so when I found that out, I decided to start one myself."

Gonsalves said his group has found connections with other nonprofits and troops in need through America Supports You, a Defense Department program facilitating grassroots support of America's servicemembers.

He said working on these projects has been a most rewarding experience, and he is thankful for the opportunity to give back to the nation's servicemembers.

"These veterans go out and put their lives on the line for you and I. They don't know us, so I think us not knowing them shouldn't have any impact," Gonsalves said. "We've got a country with a great amount of resources, and I just think that this is the least we can do."

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Related Sites:
Homes for Our Troops
America Supports You

Click photo for screen-resolution imageJohn Gonsalves, Homes for Our Troops founder, and former Army Staff Sgt. Eugene Simpson review the floor plans and answer reporters' questions during the unveiling of a recently purchased home in Woodbridge, Va., Feb. 9. Photo by William D. Moss  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageLocal media interview former Army Staff Sgt. Eugene Simpson, 28, in front of a recently purchased home in Woodbridge, Va., Feb. 9. Homes for Our Troops purchased the house and has begun renovations to accommodate Simpson's injuries. The sergeant's spine was severed by shrapnel when he was serving in Iraq. The renovation is expected to last four months. Photo by William D. Moss  
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