It’s a story of two veterans impacted by improvised explosive devices [IED] and one community with a big heart.
During the week of March 19, two veterans and their families attended groundbreakings for new, specialized houses in Wildwood, gifts from two different foundations but with one goal – rewarding the men’s hard work overseas with a place to call home.
Both homes are highly personalized to each veterans’ needs.
U.S. Army Sgt. Legrand Strickland was born in Minnesota and raised in University City. He still has multiple family members in the area. Soon, he will be residing in Wildwood, along with his wife, Carrie.
Strickland joined the Army two years out of high school before entering the National Guard as an infantry rifleman. While enlisted, Strickland graduated from college with a degree in graphic design and, and upon re-enlistment, became part of the 82nd Airborne Division. Returning from a mission in Zabul, Afghanistan, in February 2010, Strickland witnessed an IED strike his commander’s vehicle before another blast hit Strickland’s vehicle. Strickland sustained multiple injuries, including a traumatic brain injury [TBI]. Other injuries necessitated bilateral above-knee amputations.
“On that day, when we got struck by an IED and I woke up out of a coma and realized I didn’t have legs, I knew right away that I was angry,” Strickland said. “Then, soon after, that went away. I was happy because I was alive, right? I was able to function, so that’s that.”
Today, Strickland utilizes prosthetic limbs and a wheelchair for mobility.
“Sometimes, when I’m home, I forget that I can’t change a lightbulb anymore because I can’t climb a ladder,” Strickland said. “It’s just [one] of those small things. I forget myself, right? So, I’m trying to get a ladder and I’m thinking, ‘how am I going to climb this thing?’”
According to Carrie, the family is looking forward to their new home having a more open layout, including wider halls, a stair lift and other amenities that don’t exist in the family’s current home.
“I’m looking forward to him having the accessibility to get around and do things on his own, like being able to roll into the kitchen and cook things on his own or accessibility in the bathroom,” Carrie said. “Just being able to do everything in our new house that he’s not able to do in our current house now.”
The couple has been married since 1999 and has two sons: Noah, who is in the U.S. Army, and Nathan, who is a college freshman. The family has made modifications to their existing home; however, complications with overall accessibility still exist.
“For example, there’s only one bathroom that’s accessible to him,” Carrie said. “So if something is wrong with it, there’s no alternative.”
The Gary Sinise Foundation answered the family’s call for support.
The foundation is a tax-exempt public charity that provides multiple support programs for veterans and their families. The construction of Strickland’s new home is part of the foundation’s R.I.S.E [Restoring Independence Supporting Empowerment] program, which provides specially adapted smart homes to injured, aging or ill veterans and select other recipients, in addition to home modifications, mobility devices and adapted vehicles. The foundation also was responsible for building a smart home for Ballwin Police Officer Michael Flamion, who moved in, in November 2017.
According to Chris Kuban with the Gary Sinise Foundation, the application process for assistance takes months of personal contact to learn about the veteran’s specific needs.
“After they’re approved, we ask our veterans a couple different questions,” Kuban said. “Number one is, ‘Where do you want to live for the rest of your life?’ They get to choose the land and the location. The second part is, ‘Now that we have your land, help us design your house. What have you always dreamed of? What’s going to help you on a daily basis be more productive?’”
Some of the Stricklands’ design choices include functions, such as lights, blinds and the home’s HVAC, that can be controlled via iPad. The home also will allow space for social gatherings and family events. It includes a more open layout with extra space in areas like the kitchen.
“One important thing that a lot of people don’t understand is that when they have family functions or gatherings and they go to other family members’ homes, those homes are not accessible,” Scott Schaeperkoetter, director of operations for the R.I.S.E. Program, said. “So their family and friends can come to their home for the holidays, and they can have that little bit of extra space available for the people that are always going to come over and visit. That’s just something that a lot of other people might not understand.”
According to Strickland, one of the most exciting parts of the home will be the expanded garage area.
“I have an old car and I like working on it,” Strickland said. “This will help give me the access to it. Even though I don’t have legs, I can scoot up under it and do what I want to do. That will be nice to do again. It brings me back around to where I feel whole again.”The main reason the family chose the city of Wildwood was because of the proximity to family and the peacefulness of the area.
“This is my lifelong home,” Strickland said. “This is the place I’d want to die at. I’m able to look around when I’m old and grey and appreciate everything.”
The home is expected to be completed between November and December of 2018, hopefully in time for Veteran’s Day. But Strickland isn’t the only veteran getting a new home in Wildwood.
U.S. Army Spc. Heath Howes also will receive a specially adapted home in Wildwood, but his home is courtesy of Operation Finally Home, of which local builder Hibbs Homes is a part.
In 2011, Howes traveled to Oklahoma to begin basic combat training and advanced individual training. He goal was to join the field artillery as a cannon crewmember. He was stationed at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, before being deployed to Afghanistan a few months later.
Several months into his deployment, Howes’ combat outpost was attacked by a suicide bomber. Everyone in the unit escaped unharmed; however, in June 2012, Howes’s truck was hit by a 200-pound IED during patrol. The explosion killed three people, including Howes’ best friend. Howes and his captain survived.
As a result of the blast, Howes sustained multiple injuries including post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD], a TBI, fractured ribs, a spinal burst, nerve damage in his left leg, a severe right ankle fracture, a collapsed lung and more. As a result, Howes was honorably discharged in January 2014. Currently, Howes lives with his wife, Savannah, and their three sons in Oklahoma.
The Howes family plans to sink roots in Wildwood also before the end of 2018. Their home is to be located in the Hawk’s Rest area, off Historic U.S. 66.
“We don’t have the words to express what this means to us,” Howes said. “We can’t express how thankful, blessed and honored we are to Operation Finally Home, to Hibbs Homes and everyone that has been a part of the process.”
“Everyone that has been part of the process” includes Operation Finally Home, Hibbs General Contracting, Hibbs Homes, the St. Louis Cardinals, Simmons Bank and Tom Shaw Sr.
The foundation originally had earmarked land to be used for the home; however, shortly after announcing the gift of a home to the Howes, that property donation fell through. Shaw and Simmons Bank stepped up with the new location in Hawk’s Rest.
The Howes family was notified of the promise of a new, mortgage-free home in 2016 after traveling to Busch Stadium from Oklahoma to throw out the first pitch at the Cardinals’ military recognition night.
“There isn’t a day that goes by where we don’t talk about walking out to Busch Stadium and throwing that first pitch,” Howes said. “That’s a day my family and I will never forget.”
Matt Belcher, director of sales at Hibbs Homes, is a member of Operation Finally Home’s Advisory Board of Directors and a Wildwood resident.
“This process has been two years in the making,” he said. “I was able to exchange Facebook messages with Heath the other day and finally say, ‘Today is finally the big day.’”
Operation Finally Home is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that has 230 custom-built homes completed or in planning across the country for military veterans and families. Hibbs Homes is a Chesterfield-based custom home builder.
“A home provides safety and shelter,” Russell “Rusty” Carroll, Operation Finally Home’s executive director, said. “Without that, you can’t deal with your own physical, emotional and spiritual healing. There’s nothing else that can provide like a home can with that foundation of hope. There are many ways to support veterans, but to provide them long-term support, there’s nothing like a home for that.”
The process of designing the home involved the Howes family communicating long distance with the foundation and Hibbs Homes officials to create the home’s design and amenities.
“I kind of had to tell them what my injuries were, and some things I can’t do very well or at all,” Howes said. “From there, they designed things like rails in the bathroom and just making everything really accessible.
“We like to have a lot of barbeques and family gatherings and have a lot of people over at our house. To be able to have the room and openness to have whatever it may be, Christmas, birthdays or the 4th of July, and to know we have plenty of area to do that, we’re incredibly excited.”
One of the family’s main goals is to become debt-free by the end of 2018 to make the move to St. Louis and, on so doing, be closer to family and a Veterans Affairs facility. Every asset of the home will be funded by local entities and organizations as part of making the home mortgage-free for the Howes family.
“It’s because of communities and builder communities, just like we have in Wildwood, that continue to step up when the opportunity arises [that we are able to provide these homes],” Carroll said. “Good people are drawn together to do good work, and I don’t think there’s a better place for that than the building industry and the community that supports them.”
According to Wildwood Mayor Jim Bowlin, the level of community outreach and local support for the groundbreakings was somewhat expected.
“I really wasn’t surprised to see the support,” Bowlin said. “I think at times like these, the community really comes together to do right by these veterans and make sure that these gentlemen are comfortable.”
While the Howes home will be the first one built by Operation Finally Home in Missouri, it might not be the last.
“This has been a good day, but the need here is just a drop in the bucket,” Belcher said. “One percent of our population serves, and the other 99 percent can do this. This is easy.”
“You don’t know what you’re getting into, but something calls you,” Carroll said. “Something touches you, and frankly, I think we feel an obligation to help provide these homes to these wonderful families.”