- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 17, 2009

While on his second deployment in Iraq with the 4th Infantry Division in April 2008, life as Sgt. Luis Rosa-Valentin knew it changed forever. He was the point man on a dismounted combat raid just outside Baghdad when, during a six-hour firefight, an improvised explosive device burst with such violence, it left Sgt. Rosa-Valentin a triple amputee. Both his legs and his left arm were gone. He also suffered hearing and vision loss. Every attempt was made to save the unconscious soldier’s life, and he was airlifted to Landstuhl, Germany, and finally to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.

This year, on the eighth anniversary of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the severely wounded soldier accepted the keys to a brand-new home built by volunteers with Homes for Our Troops (HFOT) to help Sgt. Rosa-Valentin adjust to a “new normal.”

Sgt. Rosa-Valentin, his wife and two daughters have joined a growing list of veterans and their families who have received specially built HFOT homes in honor of their service and sacrifice to their country during wartime.

“Freedom is not free … don’t forget the fallen soldiers and please, don’t forget the soldiers who return from war. Thank you Homes for Our Troops for this gift … this home will give me back my freedom,” said a grateful Sgt. Rosa-Valentin of Pasadena, Md.

Homes for Our Troops, a nonprofit organization based in Taunton, Mass., was founded in 2004 by John Gonsalves, a construction supervisor from Raynham, Mass.

A news report about a soldier who had lost both of his legs in Iraq moved Mr. Gonsalves to do something to help severely injured soldiers returning home. Surfing the Internet hoping to become involved with an organization already building homes for wounded veterans, Mr. Gonsalves was surprised to find there was none.

Realizing that most housing for the handicapped did not consider the types of disabilities incurred in combat, Mr. Gonsalves set out to build specially adapted housing and modify and retrofit homes for those most wounded. There is no mortgage and no cost to the veteran.

Because of their service-related disabilities and wounds, veterans find their previous homes inadequate and unequipped to meet their challenging new needs and accommodations.

“My fulfillment comes from seeing how wonderful and compassionate the American people are,” Mr. Gonsalves said. “They really want to help our wounded soldiers.”

Funding for Homes for Our Troops comes mostly from individual donations, with just 6 percent going toward administration and fundraising efforts, he said.

Since its inception, HFOT also has received numerous grants from foundations to offset the costs of home-building projects, operational support and organizational growth. Corporate sponsors have raised and supplied roofing and building materials, millwork, flooring and appliances.

Golfer Phil Mickelson has supported HFOT since 2005 and has donated $200,000 from his Birdies for the Brave Golf Tournament and Gala campaign. He also has helped raise awareness by lending his name and talking about the organization in an ABC Sports video and other venues.

The Sierra Club Foundation provided a three-year, $1 million grant to HFOT in 2008 to enable the organization to explore new technologies and products designed for green building, environmental care and energy conservation to ensure long-term economic and environmental benefits to the veterans and their families.

The American Institute of Philanthropy, one of the country’s premier charity-watchdog organizations, named HFOT a top-rated veteran-and-military charity, and the Charity Navigator also gave it a four-star rating.

HFOT has built 50 homes to date, and 33 others are in various stages of construction. The goal is to construct 10 or more houses a year. Although there are at least five different designs, each home is a one-level structure with features such as remote keyless entryways, extra-wide hallways and doorways, roll-in showers, hardwood floors, granite countertops and low cabinets.

Every effort is made to give severely injured veterans maximum freedom of movement and complete access to the home so they can live more independently. Basic appliances such as stoves, refrigerators, dishwashers, washers and dryers are included, but the homes are unfurnished. Oftentimes, the community where the home is located raises money and donates furniture and other housekeeping items.

Aaron Drummond, a former Marine and head of Arrisbrook Builders in Catonsville, Md., served as the general contractor on the Rosa-Valentin home. A news report highlighting HFOT efforts sparked his interest in helping build homes for returning wounded service members. He contacted HFOT to find out whether any projects were under way in the Baltimore area.

No luck. However, he kept in touch with HFOT and finally received a call to action to help build a home for a triple amputee. “It was a real positive experience,” Mr. Drummond said. “My crew was really happy to donate their time and materials.”

Veterans may apply for housing assistance online and must meet the criteria for eligibility. The applications are reviewed by other injured veterans and caregivers to determine eligibility and what can be built within a year. Once selected, the veteran is encouraged to find a location for the home and pick out a floor plan. Once land is acquired and permit applications are filed, a general contractor is selected to begin construction.

HFOT conducts a three-day Build Brigade in which volunteer professional tradesmen lay the foundation and raise the walls, roofing, shingling and siding.

According to HFOT’s Web site, volunteers who are not in the trades can help clean the site, feed the workers or fill out paperwork.

HFOT has a dedicated group of volunteers dubbed the “road warriors.” They are mostly retired veterans who travel in recreational vehicles throughout the country, set up tents and volunteer their time building homes. Barring unforeseen delays, the homes take about 48 days to build. A key ceremony usually takes place within 90 days.

In 2002, another improvised explosive device struck in Iraq. This time, Army Cpl. Jonathan Bartlett became its victim when his convoy hit a mine. One leg had to be amputated above the knee, and the other was removed below the knee. He came home and dealt with the issues other amputees face, including finding a place to live.

In April 2009, he and his wife were able to move into a home built for them through Homes for Our Troops. The modular home has more than 1,400 square feet and is located in Chesapeake, Va.

The Tidewater Builders Association and Tidewater Modular Homes teamed up with Homes for Our Troops to construct the barrier-free home inside the Virginia Beach Convention Center. Then it was dismantled and transported to a site where Cpl. Bartlett and his wife live, mortgage-free. Homes for Our Troops purchased the land, and volunteers and sponsors have made it possible for the Bartletts to have the home at no cost.

Cpl. Bartlett, who is one semester away from a business degree, says it took a while for his good fortune to sink in. “Homes for Our Troops is pretty excellent,” he said. “They gave me a house, and it’s free. Yahhh, free house!”

• Geraldine Washington is a writer living in the District.

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