By Sgt. 1st Class Jeff Troth, CAB, 1st Inf. Div. Public AffairsAugust 15, 2011
It takes a small army of volunteers to turn a pile of wood, stone and paint into a home " and that is exactly what descended on Ottawa, Kan., the second week of August for an “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.”
Every day for a week, around 400 people volunteered to build a home for Kansas National Guardsman Staff Sgt. Allen Hill, who was injured by a roadside bomb in 2007.
Although he has recovered from his physical wounds, Hill has developed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Since environmental triggers such as loud noises, crowds, dimly lit spaces and long hallways can initiate PTSD episodes, the Hill Family home was built to make his treatment easier. The home is sound-proofed, and includes a safe room for him to go in case of an episode.
“We believe that it is not necessarily the government’s responsibility to take care of the men and women that have served us; it is all of our responsibility,” said Paul DiMeo, one of the show’s designers.
“So whenever we have the opportunity to build for one of our military it is definitely a special build for us,” he said. “At the end of the day you get a little closer to what our men and women do that serve, and you are able to understand a little bit more. Not just their discipline to do it, but also the sacrifice they have made.”
But, it wasn’t just civilians on the Hill job site. Several Fort Riley Soldiers made the trip to Ottawa to help out one of their own.
“I’ve always been a big fan of helping people out, especially when it is a team thing,” said Sgt. Jason Wales, an air traffic controller with Company F, 2nd General Support Aviation Battalion, 1st Aviation Regiment. “It is easy to get caught up on post and be doing nothing. You need to get out and do something. For me to be able to help someone, brings relief to me and it also brings relief to the person I am helping.”
Wales said he had already completed his Army missions for the week when he heard about the extreme makeover, so he put a pass in for the rest of the week so he could help out. On his first day in Ottawa, one of his Soldiers, Pvt. Mark Smeester, joined him as they helped install 20-foot timbers above the entryway.
“It is a 21st century barn raising. Our volunteers are responsible for everything on the site,” DiMeo said. “We have maybe three people that come in our advance team that are construction oriented that work with the builder. Everyone else is a volunteer. We have skilled volunteers who do the concrete and framing, but then we have volunteers passing out water, we have volunteers that are cooking and feeding the volunteers, volunteers that are organizing the volunteers.
“When we first started, before season 1 aired and before we got popular, there were no volunteers; we were doing all the work ourselves. Once the volunteer effort started we were able to grow and do more things than we ever thought we would be able to. We were able to build bigger houses, do bigger rooms, more detail into what we were building into those rooms. We wouldn’t exist without our volunteers.”
As the two Fort Riley Soldiers helped to give shape to the house, Wales’ wife, Jennifer, caught the volunteer bug as she watched from the spectator area with their three boys.
“When we got done that first day, my wife told me she wanted to help out, to do her part,” Wales said. “On the second day she started the day, while I watched the kids.”
The couple tag-teamed the rest of the day and the next, each getting to do their part for a Soldier with PTSD, something the Wales Family knows about.
“I can definitely understand Hill’s anxieties. I also have PTSD, anxiety with departures,” said the sergeant from Chicago, Ill. “I have been deployed three times, and as I was getting ready to leave on my last deployment I had panic attacks just thinking about it. But once I got to Iraq I was perfectly fine.”
Wales said he is glad to be able to volunteer in order to help make a fellow Soldier better. But he also knows working by himself wouldn’t have gotten the mission finished.
“The whole community was very supportive,” Wales said. “I saw several of Hill’s neighbors leaving their houses in blue (“Extreme Makeover”) t-shirts and head for the build site.”
“As Americans, we are able to help our neighbor, to volunteer, without having to go through the government to ask permission,” said DiMeo. “Where would we be without volunteers " where would the Army be without Soldiers? It wouldn’t be much of an Army. And we would not be able to do what we do.”