Coming home: Building support for veterans
November 1, 2011
Veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are greeted with respect and thanks when they return home. The news is full of articles about how to help these veterans, and the Army is always trying to improve the standard of care Soldiers receive today. But with the emphasis on the new veterans returning, sometimes the veterans from previous wars are unintentionally forgotten.
David Morrell, 63, a decorated Vietnam veteran and amputee, is one of them. A cheerful and gregarious man, he lives with his son, daughter-in-law and two grandchildren in Harrisburg, N.C. If you saw him on the street, you'd probably note his prosthesis or cane, or maybe the baseball cap with the word "veteran" printed across it. Then, you'd continue with your day, silently grateful for his service. Sometimes, however, grateful silence is not enough.
Purple Heart Homes is non-profit organization founded in 2008 by John Gallina and Dale Beatty, both Operation Iraqi Freedom veterans and North Carolina Guardsmen. The two were on patrol together in 2004 when their convoy hit two anti-tank mines. Beatty eventually became a double below-the-knee amputee, and Gallina experienced long-term effects from a traumatic brain injury.
They founded the organization to help disabled veterans of all wars -- not just the recent ones -- because their injuries were no different than those of the past.
"I have a long line of military, all the way back to the Revolutionary War, in my family," Beatty said. "And I just realized … that my injuries weren't any more significant or different than any other veteran that's been hurt over the past 200 years."
After his amputations, Beatty renovated his house with the help of his community, and wanted to extend that help to veterans in other communities who did not have access to the resources he did.
"That's really what we decided to do, was to organize communities to assist the veterans," Gallina said. "Not just from Iraq and Afghanistan, but from all wars."
PHH improves the quality of life for veterans with service-connected disabilities, Gallina explained, through creative solutions and home renovations that accommodate a veteran's specific injuries.
When Beatty and Gallina met fellow veteran Dave Morrell, they knew they had to do the same for him.
"I guess for me being an amputee like Dave, and being in the hospital for a year, I know what I had to go through to get back to living again," Beatty said. "So for me it's a no-brainer."
The three men met when Morrell showed up to support the renovation of another veteran's home in Concord, N.C., and started to discuss Morrell's needs. The founders of PHH ran into him again at a local coffee shop that caters to veterans and learned about his family and his background as a Soldier.
Morrell joined the Army in 1965 and deployed to Vietnam with the 7th Signal Company, serving with the forerunners of the Delta Force, in 1967. Over the course of three tours between '67 and '69, Morrell participated in seven campaigns. He has received many awards, to include a Bronze Star Medal, several Army Commendation Medals, a Navy Commendation Medal, and two Vietamese Crosses of Gallantry.
"Due to a secondary cause of diabetes from Agent Orange, I lost my left leg in 2005," Morrell explained. He moved back to North Carolina from Pennsylvania and purchased a home with his son, John. But with three adults and two kids, the house was just too small, Morrell said.
Morrell lives on the bottom floor. He has a small bedroom and bath, neither of which is handicap accessible. The bathroom is also the shared bath for the downstairs, limiting Morrell's personal space to the bedroom.
"It's very difficult for me in the evenings," he said. "When I remove my leg, I just can't get through the doorways with my walker -- a wheelchair is just out of the question. I've learned to make do, but it's very, very difficult."
Morrell said getting up at night to use the bathroom is hard because he has to use the walker; showering is hard because he has to take off his prosthesis. "I have literally crawled to the bathroom when I couldn't get through."
"Upon seeing it, I realized (so much) is not accessible," Gallina said, "which is of course unacceptable for a veteran who served with honorable distinction."
Morrell submitted an application and was surprised to find out in October 2010 that he had been accepted into the program.
"I'm so humbled," Morrell said, adding that he is thrilled that the home expansion PHH planned would provide easier access and more privacy.
Kenneth Bealer Homes was the general contractor in charge of the addition: a master bedroom suite on the first floor. The old bedroom became a handicapped, private bath with roll-in shower, and a new bedroom was built.
"We're going to open up a couple of doorways, and we're going to resurface the existing carpet with hardwood, which will make it easier for him to roll around within the house itself," Len Bealer, owner and general contractor explained last spring.
Not only did the addition help Morrell be more independent in his home, but the new wood floors also helped his extended family. His youngest grandson is a special needs child and has difficulty walking, and the new flooring made it easier for them both.
PHH broke ground with golden shovels in Morrell's backyard, Jan. 29, and a slew of friends and neighbors turned out to help, moving rocks and debris to clear the backyard for the earthmover. One strapping man in a leather biker's vest removed a fence post -- complete with cement base -- all on his own to clear a path.
"We cannot do this without the community," Beatty said. "That's one of the tenants of our organization." When the community contributes with volunteer services or donations, not only do they achieve a sense of accomplishment, they make the veteran feel appreciated.
"It has (a) tremendous psychological effect on the individual that we're helping, when the people from his community and right next door come over and say, 'I never knew you were a veteran, thanks for your service, welcome home,'" Beatty added.
Even the younger members of the community contributed. Madison Loudermilt, 12, raised more than $1,600 for the project by selling lemonade and hotdogs outside a local store over the summer.
"I wanted to do this because I figured that our veterans have done so much for us, that this is just a little part of something that I can do to give back," Loudermilt said.
"I can't be more thankful," Morrell said about the community support, "they are wonderful." Morrell hopes that communities across the nation will contribute to future "vets helping vets" PHH projects.
"It's our honor to help Dave Morrell," and other vets like him, Beatty said.
The renovations finished at the end of April, just before surgery to correct bone spurs in Morrell's injured leg.
"The healing process is going to be a month or two back in the wheelchair, so having this house done is really going to be a blessing, because I'm going to be in the wheelchair," Morrell said. "Now I'll be able to get around freely."
For more information on the Morrell project and PHH, go to www.phhnc.org.