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Program Helps Disabled Veterans Regain Independence

By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Dec. 21, 2004 – Learning to live with a disability is difficult enough. Factor in a wheelchair and living accommodations that aren't so accommodating, and the result is frustration and a loss of some independence.

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Jason Pepper and his wife, Heather, dance to LeeAnn Womack's "I Hope You Dance" just after learning they would be receiving an adapted home through the Coalition to Salute America's Heroes Homes for Wheelchair-Bound Heroes program. Jason is completely blind and his home will include smart technology to help him be more independent. About two-thirds of the cost of the homes through the program will be paid for by the coalition and sponsors. Recipients of the first homes were announced at the coalition's First Annual Road to Recovery Tribute and Conference held in Orlando in early December. Photo by Samantha L. Quigley
  

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Founded by Roger Chapin, the Coalition to Salute America's Heroes is working to lessen the frustrations of severely injured veterans and return their independence.

The goal of the "Homes for Wheelchair-Bound Heroes" program is to help veterans have a home fully adapted to their needs but in a way that also provides access, ease and comfort for family members, said CSA's executive vice president, Douglas Plank.

"Whether it's an adjustment of the height of countertops or width of doorways, it's done in a way that is not only practical for our wounded hero," Plank said, "but also takes into consideration comfort and ease for the rest of the family."

Thanks to this program, the cost of independence can be pretty affordable. Chapin said the average home built under the program will cost $300,000. The families are required incur a $50,000 mortgage that can be financed over 30 years. Chapin said he wanted the families to have "some skin in the game."

The Department of Veterans Affairs will provide up to another $50,000 toward the costs of adapting the homes, and the coalition and other sponsors will cover remaining costs.

The coalition is seeking organizations and individuals to guarantee the balance of each home until it is paid off. So far at least five homes have sponsors.

That has made for some very shocked and very happy families.

Chapin announced during his organization's First Annual Road to Recovery Tribute and Conference in Orlando, Fla., earlier this month that five families would receive sponsored homes.

The homes are solutions to problems each of the families is familiar with.

Army Reserve Staff Sgt. Tracy Jones and his wife, Johnnie, are living in a two- bedroom apartment in the Atlanta suburbs, Johnnie said. Already they have learned which home features work and which don't. For instance, wheelchairs and carpet don't get along.

"'(The new house is) going to have (hard) floors in it that the wheelchair can roll on,'" Johnnie said, quoting her husband. Jones, was hit by a water tank in Balad, Iraq, and is now a quadriplegic.

Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Mark Mix, his wife, Jasue, and their three children really didn't have any place to call home when he's medically discharged in February. They are currently living in base housing. Now, they plan to move back to their hometown of Newark, Ohio, where their house will be built to suit them.

Mix said he was ecstatic at the announcement. "There are no words to describe it," he said. "(The house) is actually going to give us a new start."

Mix, a Seabee, was injured twice in the spine -- once in the Philippines and the second time in Baghdad. The second injury made him a paraplegic.

Marine Sgt. Jason Wittling's wife, Maureen, was the only one out of the group who had prior knowledge of the home before the announcement. She already had chosen the building site - without telling her husband.

"I have no idea where the new lot is," Wittling said. He said the announcement caught him completely off-guard. He suffered a spinal cord injury in Karbala, Iraq, when his Humvee rolled over.

Wittling, Maureen, and their two children are currently living with his sister. Her three-year-old home is great, he said, but it was not built for the wheelchair he now requires.

By the time her husband's name was announced, Johnnie Jones was already "uncomposed" by having seen the other couples' reactions, she said. "It's a total blessing as far as I'm concerned," Johnnie said.

The last two recipients aren't wheelchair users but are still in need of adapted housing. Both of the veterans lost both of their eyes while serving in the war on terror.

The decision to include those blinded in combat in the program was made by the coalition at the conference when the need was realized.

"When there's an obvious need, we would like to rise up and meet that, not only as the Coalition to Salute America's Heroes but also by engaging other individuals and organizations," Plank said.

The houses for Army Pvt. 1st Class Kenny Adams and Army Staff Sgt. Jason Pepper will include "smart" technology. This technology allows certain appliances to be controlled by speaking a command. It can also help the men by telling them whether the doors are locked and the lights are off.

Adams was with the 3rd Squadron, 17th Calvary Regiment, out of Fort Drum, N.Y., when he was wounded in Kandahar, Afghanistan. He was helping a fellow soldier clean and reassemble his weapon when the weapon discharged. The round entered Adams' face below his left eye and exited above his right.

In addition to the loss of his eyes, he lost his senses of smell and taste, some of which have returned, and he has short-term memory problems. Adams and his wife, Katherine, currently reside in the Houston area and plan on staying there.

Now in an apartment, Adams said he is excited about the house that will make him independent. He feels even better knowing that "it won't tear us apart financially," he said.

Pepper was on patrol in Karbala, Iraq, with Company B, 16th Engineer Battalion, when an improvised explosive device detonated in a tree. He lost the majority of the bones in his left hand, as well as his eyes, in the blast.

He, his wife, Heather, and their daughter currently call Heidelberg, Germany, home but will build their new home in Wisconsin to be near family. Pepper, like Adams, has to relearn a lot of things he once took for granted. The smart technology will help immensely, he said.

"For me, (the house) will make me more independent," he said.

Plank said the coalition will be "pretty intricately involved" in work to identify local architects, contractors and realtors. It will also make sure that the construction or remodel meets the needs of the veterans and their families.

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Related Sites:
Coalition to Salute America's Heroes

Click photo for screen-resolution imageJason Wittling holds his daughter, Emily, with his son, Cody, and wife, Maureen. The Wittling family was the first recipient of an adapted home through the Coalition to Salute America's Heroes Homes for Wheelchair- Bound Heroes program. About two-thirds of the cost of the homes through the program will be paid for by the coalition and sponsors. Recipients of the first homes were announced at the coalition's First Annual Road to Recovery Tribute and Conference held in Orlando in early December. Photo by Samantha L. Quigley  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageMark Mix and his wife, Jasue, react to the news that they are recipients of an adapted home through the Coalition to Salute America's Heroes Homes for Wheelchair-Bound Heroes program. About two-thirds of the cost of the homes through the program will be paid for by the coalition and sponsors. Recipients of the first homes were announced at the coalition's First Annual Road to Recovery Tribute and Conference held in Orlando in early December. Photo by Wes Pratt  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageTracy Jones learned at the Coalition to Salute America's Heroes: First Annual Road to Recovery Tribute and Conference held in Orlando in early December that he and his wife, Johnnie, were recipients of an adapted home through the Coalition to Salute America's Heroes Homes for Wheelchair- Bound Heroes program. About two-thirds of the cost of the homes through the program will be paid for by the coalition and sponsors. Photo by Wes Pratt  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageKenny Adams proved that the climbing wall was no challenge for him. Neither will day-to-day living be so challenging any more. He and his wife, Katherine, learned at the Coalition to Salute America's Heroes: First Annual Road to Recovery Tribute and Conference held in Orlando in early December that they were recipients of an adapted home through the Coalition to Salute America's Heroes Homes for Wheelchair-Bound Heroes program. About two- thirds of the cost of the homes through the program will be paid for by the coalition and sponsors. Kenny is completely blind and his house will include smart technology to help him with things like making sure the doors are locked and the lights are out. Photo by Samantha L. Quigley  
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