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When James Poggi enlisted in the Marine Corps at age 19, he was looking for a worthwhile way to support his young family. While deployed to Afghanistan, he was injured helping land a helicopter and diagnosed with spinal cord compression, severe nerve damage and peripheral neuropathy. Post-traumatic stress (PTSD) and temporary memory loss also followed the accident, as did an honorable discharge for medical reasons. Like thousands of other veterans, he returned home with visible and invisible injuries.
Poggi was fortunate to receive a donated, custom-built, fully accessible house through Operation Finally Home. The New Braunfels, Texas-based 501(c)(3) veteran service organization (VSO) has built 250 homes – some still in progress – in 33 states and given them mortgage-free to military veterans and gold star widows.
Accessibility is essential to many of these homes so that a veteran with mobility challenges can function independently whenever possible. That has long been a standard practice. “The building community has a good understanding of the key elements that need to be included in the home to accommodate general accessibility needs, such as wider doorways, wider hallways, open floor plans, smooth flooring, large and/or roll-in showers,” observes Rusty Carroll, OFH’s executive director and project manager on the Poggi build. “These simple elements significantly improve the livability of a home, which translates into a better quality of life for the entire family.”
Accessibility has made a tremendous difference for Poggi. His earlier home’s stairs meant he couldn’t get into his kids’ bedrooms to kiss them goodnight or help his wife with kitchen chores. He couldn’t even leave the house or shower on his own. Having a home he can fully enjoy in his wheelchair is physically liberating, he says. It’s also emotionally and mentally liberating in ways now being explored by builders to address the hidden wounds of war.
Recent innovations include smart home technology and designated retreats within the home. The tech features include security, lighting and thermostat management, making life easier and more comfortable for users with mobility or vision challenges. The retreats are designed to ease the difficulties often faced by those with traumatic brain injuries (TBI) and PTSD, Carroll notes. “These rooms are designed to help address migraine headaches, body temperature management and other symptoms stemming from TBI, as well as post-traumatic stress.” They typically feature soundproof walls, blackout shades and zoned heating-ventilation-air conditioning (HVAC) systems, he explains. “These dark, quiet, cool rooms provide a respite for the veteran to retreat to address these symptoms as a part of their physical, emotional and spiritual healing.” When a dedicated space isn’t achievable, the project manager shares, helpful features are added to other rooms in the house to create a temporary getaway for the veteran.
Poggi says his getaway is where he feels safest. “If I’m having a bad day, the garage is my go-to space where I can sit in my wheelchair, lean back, blast my music and calm down. I couldn’t even get to the garage in my old house.”
Carroll’s group is one of several VSOs building custom homes for veterans like Poggi. Building Homes for Heroes, another organization helping in the same space, has a fairly unique model. The Long Island, New York charity’s construction projects often start with homes donated by JP Morgan Chase. It then remodels each house to meet its recipient family’s needs. Since achieving an initial modest goal of giving a single home to a single veteran in 2006, BHH will have completed and donated 225 mortgage-free homes by the end of this year.
Like other groups’, the nonprofit’s projects also include complete accessibility, smart home technology – especially security systems – and safe rooms in their client homes, says director of construction Kim Valdyke. “Most of the veterans suffer from some level of PTSD and the security system helps with their stress levels about feeling safe and their family being safe,” she shares. “We also put a water fountain in every home to help with the tinnitus that many of our veterans suffer with. It helps calm the ringing in their ears,” she reports.
Army Specialist Hugo Gonzalez and his family are enjoying their BHH-donated home in Florida, he says. While deployed to Iraq, Gonzalez’s Hummer patrol vehicle hit an improvised explosive device (IED). Fragments ripped into his head and he suffered a TBI from the blast wave. He also experienced internal bleeding, a sinus bone fracture, seizures and blindness.
The house helps him mentally and physically, especially the water feature and retreat, which Gonzalez calls a sanctuary. “It is a place in where I can decompress after a hard day , recharge or just be on my own. The sanctuary should be standard for any veteran that is suffering from combat PTSD,” he suggests. The Army veteran also makes good use of his home’s keyless entry system, voice-controlled thermostat and the water feature installed on his back porch. That’s the spot “where I relax and enjoy outdoor living with my family and friends,” he says.
Gonzalez and Poggi are hopefully enjoying Veteran’s Day at home with their families and the profound gratitude of their fellow Americans.
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