In Ben Tomlinson’s house, the stove, cabinets and countertops lower with the push of a button. He can control the lights, temperature and sound system in one place.
These aren’t just flashy home features. This is independence.
Marine Sgt. Tomlinson, and other grievously hurt veterans like him, survived the toughest war scenes to return home to a much different day-to-day battle. In May 2011, Tomlinson’s team was ambushed during a raid on a compound in Afghanistan, and he was shot in the neck. Paralyzed from the neck down, he returned home to live with his parents, who helped take care of him, in the college town of Jacksonville, Alabama.
Ben Tomlinson. (All photos and videos courtesy of Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation)
“It was tough for a while, needing help for so much stuff that used to be so easy, getting out of bed and getting dressed and all that kind of stuff,” he told Yahoo Real Estate. “It always bothered me to ask for help. I’ve never been that kind of person. I’d rather do something on my own.”
Yet he found himself needing to call people “to come home for a second from work, or in the middle of the night. I hated doing that.”
Looking for a way to be more independent, Tomlinson called Veterans United looking for a home loan, and an officer there referred him to Building for America’s Bravest. (The program is part of the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation, named for a Brooklyn firefighter who was on his way to play golf after the late shift when he heard that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center.; the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel was already closed, so he strapped 60 pounds of gear to his back and ran through the tunnel to the Twin Towers, where he died.)
Building for America’s Bravest is a completely donor-supported program that has built or broken ground on 45 smart homes, each custom-designed for a “catastrophically injured” service member – typically someone who has lost the use of two or more limbs, though the definition is a bit you-know-it-when-you-see-it. The homes are 100 percent mortgage-free to the veteran for life.
“We decided to make that our niche because quite frankly, they needed to have homes designed for whatever their injuries were,” says John Hodge, the chief operating officer of Building for America’s Bravest. Stephen Siller was his cousin.
“You couldn’t take a home and put in a ramp and couple new doorways and a bathroom and say they’re going to have an easy day from there on out. It just wasn’t going to happen.”
An American-flag curtain is drawn across one of the houses on dedication day, preparing for the big reveal.
The features in these homes range from the simple—faucets that turn on with a tap—to the complex, like a system built into the ceiling that can help ease the transition from bed and bathroom to wheelchair without help from anyone else.
“There’s nothing sexy about it, but everything we put into the bathrooms is what really gives them their independence,” Hodge tells Yahoo Real Estate. “It’s really tough to be by yourself in that situation, so everything in the bathroom is automated. You can get yourself onto the commode and there’s flush features, wash features, blow-dry features; the shower’s all automated.
“So what all that really means independence. That bathroom is the single most important feature.”
The houses have security systems and are rigged so that music can stream through them, which helps reduce post-traumatic stress. Some doors can read a chip on the wheelchair and open when the homeowner approaches. Cooktops lower to wheelchair-height; spaces are wide and flat and open.
“Within reason, we pretty much let the service members decide what they want and where they want the house to be,” Hodge says. “These are their forever homes. With the level of sophistication and the cost associated with all that, the odds are this is probably their first and last home.”
The service members who have received homes and those who are on a waiting list have formed what Hodge calls a “little fraternity.”
“These guys wound up being my buddies,” Tomlinson agrees. “They just understand and a lot were injured in a nearby place, which makes sense because we were working the most dangerous parts.”
And the independence his home affords – “being over here by myself and learning how to do those kind of things I normally ask for help with – just makes me feel better about it all.”
Navy SEAL Bo Reichenbach, who lost both legs when he stepped on a makeshift bomb in Afghanistan in 2012, recently received a home from Building for America’s Bravest. It sits on a small mountaintop in Billings, Montana, 4,000 feet above sea level, and he actually helped put it together.
“One of my dreams my whole life was to build a home for myself, and for my family,” he says in the first video here. “I knew that’d be a good part in my rehab.”
He comes from three generations of home builders, so when it came time for his home to start going up, Reichenbach and his father, Don, were on the job. Bo Reichenbach did the framing and trim work.
“I pretty much did all the base work in the house, so Dad didn’t have to bend down to get any of that,” he says with a laugh. “Not wear my legs for a day and scoot around on my butt and do the base. Or if he’s doing stuff up high I’m cutting the wood for him and passing it up. We’ve been involved with every step of the project.”
Down in Lovettsville, Virginia, Marine Cpl. Tony Porta received a home earlier this year.
He selected the town carefully: Porta was horribly burned by a roadside bomb in Iraq in 2007, scarring his face and body, and leaving him with only one arm that still had a few fingers.
“When I was really struggling in the city, I wanted to move as far away from the city as possible,” Porta says. “Then I found this place, Lovettsville. First time I heard about Lovettsville I told myself, ‘Ah, maybe this is the place. It begins with love. Let’s give it a try.’”
Porta, who met his wife after the disfiguring attack and now has a young son, felt alienated in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., where he says people would point and stare, whisper behind his back or even wonder aloud if it had been worth it. But then, he and his wife found Lovettsville, about 55 miles away.
“One of the major things I used to think about was my son – how would all the children react the first time they saw me, if they would point fingers at my son about me,” he says. “But when I moved here, there were so many children that already knew me because their parents talked to them about me, so I don’t have that problem. There could be 100 children outside and no one will cry or look at me in a different way, because they already know me.”
And on Sunday, during the Steelers-Broncos game, the organization donated yet another home – this one to Army Staff Sgt. Michelle Satterfield, a water purification specialist who served two tours in Iraq and has done special humanitarian work in Peru and El Salvador. Though she wasn’t injured, the organization is using her home – assembled in partnership with the Blueroof Tiger Vet program by the students of McKeesport High School outside Pittsburgh – as a prototype for a model it may assemble for injured troops who don’t require the kind of deep customization and features of those catastrophically injured, spokeswoman Catherine Mooney said.
“These are the soldiers who fought for their home, to protect and preserve their home,” Hodge says. “They deserve to have one that makes them feel at home.”
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