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Organization Raises Money to Build Homes for Disabled Vets

By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service

WOODBRIDGE, Va., Nov. 19, 2004 – Wheelchair-bound and recovering from an explosion that paralyzed him, Army Staff Sgt. Eugene "Gene" Simpson Jr. was joking and laughing heartily as more than 200 people at American Legion Post 364 here expressed their appreciation for his heroic service in Iraq.

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Barbara Barnes, second vice president of American Legion Auxiliary Unit 364, poses with Army Staff Sgt. Eugene "Gene" Simpson Jr. wearing a T-shirt with his likeness. An improvised explosive device in Iraq paralyzed Simpson. Photo by Rudi Williams
  

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The American Legion post and its auxiliary partnered with the Massachusetts- based "Homes for Our Troops" organization and threw a benefit dance for him Nov. 13 to raise money to build a handicapped-accessible house for the paralyzed veteran, his wife and their four young sons.

The house will be outfitted with entry paths, ramps, wide doorways, lifts, modified bathroom facilities and other features to make things accessible for a paralyzed person in a wheelchair.

Simpson was paralyzed by an improvised explosive device in Tikrit. Looking around at all the people in the legion activities hall raising money to buy him a house, Simpson said, "I'm blessed! You never expect anything like this. I pray every day and I have a lot of friends and family who really care about me and want to support me. They truly went out of their way for me today."

Homes for Our Troops founder and president John S. Gonsalves said he saw soldiers on a television news show talking about the day their convoy was attacked in Iraq.

"One of the Humvees in the convoy was hit with an RPG a rocket propelled grenade and they weren't sure if the driver survived," said Gonsalves, who flew in from Boston to participate in the fund-raiser for Simpson. "When they finally did get him out, they realized he had survived, but had lost both of his legs."

The newscast touched him so much that he asked himself, "As an American, what can I do to help?"

He decided to use his more than 20 years of expertise in the construction business and knowledge of the Americans with Disability Act to work with an organization that builds specially adaptive homes for disabled veterans. But to his disappointment, there was no such organization.

"But it's something we needed to do as a country to show our veterans how much we love and appreciate what they do, day in and day out, and they don't ask for much in return," Gonsalves said.

"We incorporated in February and got our paperwork from the Massachusetts attorney general's office in March so we could start soliciting money," said the Bostonian. "So in mid-March, we began raising money.

Simpson is in line for the program's second house. "I just bought the land for the first house on Veterans Day, and we'll break ground hopefully in the next couple of weeks," Gonsalves explained. "The house will be built in Middleboro, Mass., for Army Sgt. Peter Damon of Brockton, Mass., and his family."

Damon is a Massachusetts Army National Guard helicopter mechanic who volunteered to go to Iraq to with an Alabama National Guard unit that didn't have enough people, according to Gonsalves.

"He and an Alabama Guardsmen were changing a tire on a Black Hawk helicopter when it exploded," he said. "The guy he was working with was killed, and Peter lost both of his arms."

Enough money and building materials have been donated to build Damon's house, Gonsalves noted. "And we have about $20,000 worth of building materials for Simpson's house," he continued. "Homes for Our Troops will add about $10,000 to whatever is raised tonight. Plus, Gene will get a $50,000 grant from Veterans Affairs for an adaptive home."

Gonsalves said people across the country, from Maine to Arizona, are holding fundraisers for Homes for Our Troops. "People do events like this for us because people's mind-set is a lot different than it was 30 years ago after the Vietnam War," he noted. "We do a lot more for our veterans now. And people have really embraced this cause. I think it's just wonderful."

Anyone who wants to help Homes for Our Troops could do so by supporting local fundraising events, donating money online, or by donating materials or equipment. Tradesmen and women can help by donating their expertise and labor, he added.

"It's just marvelous that the people have stepped forward to help out," said John D. Jenkins, the Neabsco district supervisor in Prince William County, Va., the county in which Simpson lives.

Jenkins said the project got started when a concerned county resident by the name of Rosemary Butcher called him asking for help.

"They wanted to help make the family's home his parent's home -- functional for someone in a wheelchair," said Jenkins, a retired Army lieutenant colonel. "Making the home functional for him was a big thing, because you can't get a wheelchair into an ordinary-sized door. Then we had to have some ramps prepared so he could get into the house.

"People appreciated the fact that we had one of our own who had made such a supreme sacrifice for his country and they wanted to help," Jenkins noted, adding that several young men with carpenter and construction skills from the county public works department donate time.

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Homes for Our Troops

Click photo for screen-resolution imageJohn D. Jenkins, the Neabsco district supervisor in Prince William County, Va., right, chats with Butch Miller, past national commander of the American Legion, before thanking citizens for support the effort to purchase an adaptive home for Army Staff Sgt. Eugene "Gene" Simpson Jr. who was paralyzed by an improvised explosive device in Iraq. Photo by Rudi Williams  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageJohn S. Gonsalves, founder and president of "Homes for Our Troops" flew in from Boston to participate in a fundraiser for Army Staff Sgt. Eugene "Gene" Simpson Jr. who was paralyzed by an improvised explosive device in Iraq. Gonsalves said Simpson's house would be the second one built for disabled war veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. Photo by Rudi Williams  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageBarbara Barnes, second vice president of American Legion Auxiliary Unit 364, presents Army Staff Sgt. Eugene "Gene" Simpson Jr. a shadow box during a benefit dance aimed at raising money for the "Home for Our Troops" organization to build Simpson and his family an adaptive home. Simpson was paralyzed by an improvised explosive device in Iraq. Photo by Rudi Williams  
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