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Homes for Heroes

Reprinted from PN/Paraplegia News November 2013

The Specially Adapted Housing Mission is among several groups working to help severely wounded veterans get a home built just for them.

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For eight years, Nick Orchowski couldn’t run a shower alone.

After being thrown from a gunner’s hatch of a vehicle hit during an insurgents’ attack in Baghdad in May 2004, the former U.S. Army corporal can only feel minor sensations from the neck down. Someone would always have to check the water temperature for him before he went inside to wash up.

Orchowski had thought the shower situation would be a part of his life. He’d adapt. Until John Gonsalves came along.

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Founder of the Specially Adapted Housing (SAH) Mission, Gonsalves heard about Orchowski’s plight and told the Iraq War veteran he’d like to build him a home for free. It’d be a ranch-style house with more accessibility, designed to suit his needs and even have a digital water system.

At first, Orchowski admits it was hard to take help. But since he moved in nearly a year ago, it’s changed his life.

“Moving into this home, this was the first time I could actually run myself a shower without having somebody check the water for me ... One of the weirdest feelings is to be able to do it by yourself again,” says Orchowski, a 29-year-old Colorado Springs, Colo., resident. “Not being able to do it for so long because of the risk of burning yourself or freezing yourself out — it’s just kind of one of those really neat feelings to do it myself again. It makes you feel whole again. The disability aspect of it kind of goes away.”

A New Proposal

That’s the feeling Gonsalves hopes every paralyzed veteran receives.


Nick Orchowski was thrown from a gunner’s hatch of a vehicle during an insurgents’ attack in Baghdad in May 2004.

A 47-year-old Massachusetts native, Gonsalves started the SAH Mission last year. It’s a nonprofit organization committed to ensuring severely wounded veterans receive specially adapted homes and is dedicated in memory of Mark R. Ecker II, a friend of Gonsalves’ who was killed in a car accident prior to the building of his specially adapted home.

Adamant about changing the law so severely wounded veterans will receive 100% funding for specially adapted homes, Gonsalves is trying to get Congress and the president to pass another law like the Traumatic Service Member’s Group Life Insurance (TSGLI) policy. The TSGLI provides automatic traumatic injury coverage to all full- or part-time service members under the Service Members Group Life Insurance (SGLI) program.

In 2005, Congress and President George W. Bush changed the SGLI policy and added a rider to it, increased the rate from just $26 to $27 and improved a benefit. According  to the Army’s benefits website (myarmybenefits.us.army.mil), the TSGLI coverage pays a benefit between $25,000 and $100,000 depending on the loss directly resulted from the traumatic injury.

Gonsalves and the SAH Mission are proposing to add an additional rider to cover those veterans who are the most severely wounded to fund building an entire home.

The current SAH grant benefit from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is just $64,960, according to the VA website.

Gonsalves thinks veterans should receive more money. He says he doesn’t want to see more veterans struggling to pay mortgages and losing homes or possibly waiting years for programs that can help them.

That’s why he hopes to have a group of veterans travel with him to Washington, D.C. this Veterans Day to get the law passed.

“I’ve donated a lot of homes for paralyzed veterans. But the impact that this will have is that any veteran who would suffer a spinal-cord injury, whether they’re a paraplegic or a quadriplegic forever, if we can get this passed, every single one of them will have enough money to get an adapted home and they’ll be able to do it on their own and that’s really the bottom line,” Gonsalves says. “This will help every paralyzed veteran forever. Every one of them will get an adapted home.”

Man on a Mission

For the past decade, Gonsalves has built homes for wounded and paralyzed veterans.

In 2003, he saw a story about a solider that had lost both legs and was inspired so much he started scouring the Internet for organizations that build specially adapted homes. Only he didn’t find any.

So he took it upon himself to start one — Homes for Our Troops — a non-profit to provide specially adapted homes to severely wounded veterans.

Other organizations and foundations, including Building for America’s Bravest, have come along. Building for America’s Bravest is a program of the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation that builds custom-designed, specially adapted homes for “the most catastrophically injured service members,” according to its website.

The foundation helps build smart homes for severely wounded veterans with features like automated doors and lighting, special showers and lower cabinets and counters. It honors Siller, a 34-year-old firefighter who ran through Brooklyn Battery Tunnel to the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, to save others.

It’s that same type of selfless spirit that helps drive Gonsalves to do more.

“The way that the SAH Mission is designed and the way that it’s hopefully going to be ran, it’s a win-win situation for every veteran that’s coming home disabled. John’s basically wanting to take care of everyone that’s coming home with a life-altering injury; he doesn’t want to leave anybody behind, which is the ultimate. Having that sense of reassurance, it’s become a reality now for a lot of people that you’re going to war,” Orchowski says. “He wants to take care of all those guys and make sure they’re as comfortable with their new disability and their new way of life as much as I am with mine now.”

Changing Lives

It took Orchowski a little while, though. Since he can’t use his right arm, simple tasks like putting away groceries, sliding a dish into the microwave or oven or taking out the trash turned into puzzles.

Orchowski utilized MacGyver-like techniques or had his wife, Jamie, or children, 8-year-old Mikayla and 4-year-old Colton, help hold or open doors. Now, with his new home, appliances are easily accessible. Counters are lower, as are the microwave and oven, which make chores simpler. Gonsalves installed door openers in the home, so Orchowski can open one with the click of a button. There’s even that digital water system, which allows him to control the temperature plus or minus one degree.

“Everything is at my level when I am in my chair. One of the hardest things to adapt to is stuff that’s at normal height, trying to get into an oven without messing yourself up,” Orchowski says. “It’s hard because we’ve almost been in the home a year, and I laugh when I’m talking with my wife, I’m like ‘how did I manage before all this? How did I do stuff?’ … It’s made a huge impact on my family’s life.

“[Gonsalves] took my limitations and my disability to heart and designed and built me a home that is barrier-free. You can’t ask for anymore than that,” Orchowski adds. “I’m always going to live differently, but now I can live differently but still be comfortable.”

For more information, visit SAH Mission at sahmission.org or Building for America’s Bravest at ourbravest.org.

 

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