GOLDFIELD, Iowa — From his great-grandfather down to his brothers and sisters, Michael Hulsey has a proud military family. Still, when he sat down with his mother at her kitchen table in the spring of 2001 and told her he planned to enlist, she had reservations.
“I remember having a conversation with my mother at the time. I told her, ‘You know, it’s a peacetime military right now. There is no conflict, and the last one lasted 14 days. I think I’m good,’" Hulsey said. "Six months later, the towers fell. That one event that was so devastating to so many people in so many communities, that event shaped my entire life, still does today.”
His decision to join the military led to deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan and, during his second deployment to Iraq, serious injuries when an explosion rocked the Humvee he was riding in. Eventually, his injuries forced him out of the military and left him unable to work or provide his family with a home of their own. Three times, he and his family had tried to buy a house, and three times, they came up empty.
That changed Saturday, when the family received the keys to a mortgage-free home in Goldfield, donated by Wells Fargo to the Military Warriors Support Foundation.
"When we pulled up to the home, to see so many friendly faces, hugs, handshakes, that’s what we’ve been craving and looking for, to belong to a community," Hulsey said. "We’re absolutely blown away."
His journey to Goldfield, a town of just over 600 people in north central Iowa, took many turns.
After 9/11, Hulsey was deployed to Iraq for a year before coming home to be with his wife for the birth of their first son. Though he had planned to end his military service after that, Hulsey decided to stay in the Army.
"I missed it so incredibly much, the camaraderie, having the ability to truly stand beside someone who would willingly lay down their life to protect you," Hulsey said. "It was a brotherhood."
After Hulsey was deployed again to Iraq and was injured in the explosion, he began to suffer severe pain.
"I had been thrown into a radio inside the Humvee. It was such a violent explosion that I was knocked unconscious," Hulsey said. "I didn’t realize the extent of the injuries until I got back Stateside and they sent me to a specialist. They found out that I had several ruptured discs in my lower spine, and I was suffering from a traumatic brain injury from hitting the steel radio mount inside the Humvee."
After recovering, Hulsey, who was awarded a Purple Heart, deployed again, this time to Afghanistan. But his old injuries became too severe. By then an Army sergeant, he was honorably discharged in 2011.
"I’d started to lose the ability to walk," Hulsey said. "They started trying to do some type of reconstructive surgery. I had both hips replaced, most of my spine is fused now, most of my neck is fused, right shoulder has been replaced and several abdominal surgeries for complications from these injuries."
Hulsey was in the workforce for four months after leaving the military, before ongoing surgeries and recovery periods made it difficult to continue working and he retired.
"I spend my days now, I do a lot of fishing and I spend a lot of time with my kids," Hulsey said. "I’ve been given an opportunity, a blessing, to get a second shot at life, and a lot of folks don’t get that. And to be as young as I am and understand that, it’s something most people don’t learn until later in life when it’s too late to act on and make corrections to spend that time with family members and loved ones."
However, there was still something missing for Hulsey: a place for his family to call home. As a military family who moved often, they never had somewhere to put down roots.
"Since I’ve retired, we’ve tried to buy a home on three separate occasions," Hulsey said. "Either a surgery, or recovery or a family emergency, something would always take that savings back out of our pocket."
Then, the family learned about the Military Warriors Support Foundation, which accepts applications to match veterans with mortgage-free homes.
"My wife got on their site, and this home was listed, and we thought, 'Well, we have all the documentation that would be needed anyway. We’ll submit it and see where it goes,'" Hulsey said. "From the time my wife submitted the application paperwork and basically our life story, seven days later we had already been contacted and made aware that we were being awarded this home in Iowa. Today, 28 days later, is our first day in our first-ever home."
Since 2010, the Military Warriors Support Foundation has given over 900 homes to veterans in all 50 states.
"What we do is so small, but what they’ve done … they’ve gone through a lot, and they’ve seen the worst humanity has to offer," said John Hill, media manager at the foundation. "The least we can do is provide them a safe place to call home and set them up for success and help them every way we can."
Wells Fargo has donated over 400 mortgage-free homes and 40 payment-free vehicles to veterans through the foundation since 2012.
"You could see the weight of the world being lifted off Michael's shoulders as he toured the home," said Angela Kruse, Wells Fargo vice president, senior social impact and sustainability specialist. "It's imperative we support and assist servicemen and women and their financial goals, particularly veterans who have served our country and are transitioning back to civilian life."
Hulsey said he was grateful to see his new home and looks forward to the life he will build there.
"To be able to leave something to my wife and children, to have had the community come out and make a connection on day one, that was what we were looking for," he said. "We couldn’t have found a better place to call home."
Grace Altenhofen is a news reporting intern for the Des Moines Register. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @gracealtenhofen.
This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Army veteran wounded in combat receives mortgage-free home in Iowa