- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 27, 2016

ALPENA TOWNSHIP, Mich. (AP) - At the end of a winding driveway near Long Lake Outlet, construction workers are building a house that will give a wounded veteran his freedom.

Last week, Tom Male and Male Construction employees put up the first wall as a crowd of roughly 700 watched in Anderson Middle School’s gymnasium in Berkley, near Detroit, according to The Alpena News ( https://bit.ly/1Qyyo0z ).

Dave Scott, a media representative for the Stephen Siller Tunnels to Towers Foundation, broadcasted from the site of the foundation’s only project house in Michigan with Steve Diamond, Buick and GM area sales manager.

In that gymnasium was Army Staff Sgt. Ben Eberle, who lost both legs and one arm after being wounded in Afghanistan. John Hodge, Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation chief operations officer, said the crowd and the warm welcome they gave Eberle was a sight to behold.

Anderson Middle School is part of Berkley’s school district, and six of its students teamed up to raise nearly $3,000 to build Eberle’s new home. The presentation recognized their efforts to help Eberle.



After a marching band led Eberle and a General Motors representative to the school, Eberle said he followed a procession down the student-lined halls. In the gym, a choir sang the national anthem and “The Army Song,” then after hearing about the foundation, two of the students talked about what they did to raise funds for the project.

Local police and firefighters were there as well, and after the presentation he shook hands with one student after another.

“All the children out there giving us their support, I just can’t believe it,” he said. “They really surprised us, they just made everything better than it was already going to be.”

GMC has partnered on the project as well by holding a gala that helped raise the funds needed to break ground on Eberle’s house, Hodge said. It also has started a Twitter campaign using #EnlistMe to raise awareness for Building for America’s Bravest, the foundation’s program that’s constructing smart houses for veterans with severe war wounds.

Stephen Siller was a firefighter who ran through the Brooklyn Battery tunnel on Sept. 11, 2001, after his shift ended and after he learned of the attacks on the World Trade Center, according to the foundation his family started. He and other members of his squad were killed in the towers’ collapse.

The foundation started Building for America’s Bravest and builds these smart houses in recognition that Eberle and other wounded veterans would not have been in harm’s way had it not been for the attacks on the World Trade Center, Hodge said.

The program has started or completed 45 homes and has a goal of building 200, Hodge said. They cost $500,000 on average, and each one’s customized to meet the needs of the wounded veteran for whom it’s built. Its essential functions can be run entirely from a smartphone or tablet computer.

Eberle’s home will include countertops, a cook top, a sink and other kitchen appliances that can be lowered at the touch of a button to a height he can reach from his wheelchair, Hodge said. Its window treatments, music system, bathroom fixtures and more will also be electronically controlled.

These high-tech features aim to give Eberle back the freedom he lost after he was wounded, Hodge said. It’ll also give his wife Ashley some peace of mind as well, as she can take trips away from home without having to worry about being away.

“We want these homes to be a part of them just fulfilling the dreams they had for their families and themselves prior to being injured,” Hodge said.

Ashley Eberle, Ben’s wife, said the program had contacted the family shortly after Eberle was injured in December 2011. They didn’t respond immediately, not knowing what it was about. The Eberles got in touch with the program last year.

“It was kind of scary when he was injured at first,” she said. “I was pregnant with my first child with him, and it just kind of seemed like things were over.”

Male said the Eberles currently rent a house in Alpena he built, and Ben put the foundation in touch with Male’s company. For Male and his employees, building the house is part of what they do for a living, but they’re also glad to be a part of the project.

“Everybody that’s met Ben is just in awe of him,” Male said.

Finding that rental house took two years, Ben said, as the family had to look for a place that could accommodate his power wheelchair. It’s one of a number of headaches he faces routinely as he struggles to keep his independence.

Even little things like being able to do more chores and household activities will make a big difference, Ben said, and he’s hoping it’ll create a lasting sense of normalcy for him and his family as well. The Home Depot is helping with the project, Ben said, and he and Ashley will meet with employees soon to start planning the details of the home’s decor.

Ashley said the family could be moved in by May.

Ben said he’ll stay involved with the foundation and take part each September in its Tunnel to Towers five-kilometer run that follows the same path Siller took. He wants wounded veterans to know that organizations like this one are looking to help them.

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Information from: The Alpena News, https://www.thealpenanews.com

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