- 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.

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