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Army veterans regain independence with custom residences

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For U.S. Army veteran Robert “Finn” Visbal, his new home is more than sparkling modern appliances, hardwood floors and around 2,650 square feet of space.

His Homes For Our Troops residence is a “sanctuary.” Along with helping regain his independence, the Cartersville one-story house enables the 29-year-old to confidently oversee his toddler’s active nature, with its open floor plan offering unobstructed views.

“After I left the Army, I was never able to find an apartment that was wheelchair accessible,” said Visbal, who was injured while serving in Afghanistan seven years ago. “So I have had to rely on just my prosthetic. If my leg and foot were to get [tired], I was always stuck to the couch because I couldn’t use my wheelchair. I moved in with my wife [Holley] April 2016 a few months before we were married, and the house was a two story. When our son was born, my biggest fear was falling down the stairs with him. I always felt bad when I was too tired to put him to bed, or read him a bedtime story.

“… This new home is my sanctuary. I can finally relax and not be on high alert with a toddler all the time. The main thing that was hard in [our] old house was keeping an eye on my son,” he said, noting Johnny will turn 2 in January. “Now I don’t have to worry about him playing on stairs. The open concept also makes it easier to keep an eye on him at all times.”

He continued, “Some of my favorite features are the master shower, since it has a built-in bench and rails, so I have a safer shower; [and] the master closet doubles as a storm shelter, so I don’t have to go down stairs for shelter. We moved in Sunday, Oct. 7. … I feel like a huge weight has been lifted off of me, and I can fully enjoy my time with my family since I fully have my independence in this home.”

Accepted into the Homes For Our Troops program in January 2016, Visbal officially received the keys to his custom home Oct. 6. He and fellow Army veteran Heather Kready were honored at the key ceremony, with both obtaining HFOT residences in the Branson Mill neighborhood.

“The moment last Saturday that stood out the most to me was watching Finn Visbal and Heather Kready realize that these homes were their homes,” HFOT Executive Director Bill Ivey said. “When I saw the look in their eyes as they walked through their front doors with their families, I knew that their lives had changed. The feeling of handing them the keys to their specially adapted, mortgage free, custom homes is beyond description. The joy and hope in their eyes was overwhelming. 

“Homes For Our Troops was started in 2004 as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization with the mission of building and donating specially adapted custom homes nationwide for severely injured post-9/11 veterans, to enable them to rebuild their lives. The focus is to build a specially adapted home that is fully accessible to a veteran in a wheelchair, thereby restoring some of the freedom and independence they sacrificed while defending our freedom in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Through Oct. 12, the nonprofit has constructed 269 residences in 42 states, including 11 in Georgia. Along with being injured while serving in Iraq or Afghanistan, recipients also need to qualify for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ Specially Adapted Housing benefits and pass an extensive background check.

“The homes we just finished in Cartersville for Army veterans Finn Visbal and Heather Kready are single-story homes of approximately 2,650 square feet, large enough to raise a family, but not so large that taxes and utilities will be overly expensive,” Ivey said. “We built these homes to ENERGY STAR standards to make them as efficient as possible.

“Both veterans chose our model with the kitchen in the back, and an open floor plan. They are four-bedroom homes, and are completely accessible to the veterans when they are in their wheelchairs. Features in these homes include automatic door openers, roll in showers, hardwood flooring and cabinets chosen by the veterans, sidewalks that go around the homes to provide complete wheelchair access to the yards, pull down shelving, and digital temperature control for the shower and bath.”

Like Visbal, Kready views the adapted home as a life-changing gift for her and her children, 18-year-old Kailee and 15-year-old Kody. A private first class, Kready retired from the Army in 2006 after sustaining injuries earlier in the year.

“It was surreal,” she said, referring to now calling the house her home. “I don’t know that I ever let myself believe it was really happening until that day. Disbelief really. After always being prepared for [the] worst case scenario, the home was more of a shock than I can put [into] words.

“I’ve always prepared for the other shoe to drop. It’s safer that way. This was more of a surprise due to its positivity, which led to an unrealistic quality. I worked so hard to be able to show the people there [at the key ceremony] what their work had wrought in my life. [I will remember] the moment I got to tell them this [and] the moment we raised the flag and I knew that it would stand in front of my house permanently.”

Along with now living in the same neighborhood, the Army veterans share numerous similarities, from both having relatives with previous military service, to being injured while stationed in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province, to currently furthering their education. While Kready is attending Georgia Highlands College’s Cartersville campus, Visbal is working toward a Welding and Joining Technology diploma at Chattahoochee Technical College.

“I enlisted a few years after 9/11 [in] 2004,” Kready said. “I wanted to be part of something greater than myself and serve my country. My entire family was military Air Force except my grandfather, who was a Marine during WWII. I worked in surgery [with the] 14th Combat Support Hospital out of Fort Benning [and was] deployed to Kandahar. I was carrying [about 150 pounds of] medical equipment from the hospital to storage. There was a bridge made out of pressed-board plywood that was breaking shards sticking out. My boot tip caught, and I went flying.

“No MRI was done for years, so the [extent of the] injury was missed and caused nerve damage, seizures, spasms and loss of sensation in my legs. My injury caused RSD [reflex sympathetic dystrophy syndrome], extreme intractable pain. But outside of a handicap-adapted space, I have to navigate with the cane. So [I] cannot rest and heal. I’ve had 22 surgeries so far, [and I] became someone my family had to take care of all of the time. I would have seizures or my legs [would] give out and my environment turned into a weapon.”

Joining the Army at age 18 in 2008, Visbal was deployed to the Kandahar province in 2011.

“I was injured on Dec. 4, 2011,” Visbal said. “I was in the gunner’s seat of my Stryker when we hit an IED. Both of my legs and feet were broken. My injuries on my left three breaks on the tibia, two breaks on the fibula, broken ankle, fractured tibial plateau, first and second metatarsal, and the heel was crushed. On my right broken ankle, one break in the tibia, and the third, fourth and fifth metatarsals. I also had a concussion and the discs in my lower back were compressed. … I went through 12 surgeries to rebuild my legs within a month.

“After a month, I was sent to the Active Duty Rehab at the Augusta [VA Medical Center]. A few months later, the doctors at Fort Gordon decided that amputation of my left foot was my best chance for recovery. My left foot was amputated on April 25, 2012. A week later, I was climbing the rock wall at the Augusta VA, without a prosthetic. Three months later, I received my first prosthetic from Augusta Orthotics and Prosthetics Inc. I was walking unaided two weeks after I received my prosthetic. In September 2012, I left the VA and was assigned to the Warrior Transition Battalion at Fort Gordon until I … retired [as a sergeant] June 8, 2014.”

Kready said she learned about HFOT from a friend while serving as a volunteer for a veteran nonprofit. The 37-year-old’s initial reaction to viewing the organization’s purpose was one of “disbelief.”

“I don’t know that I truly believed it was happening until Saturday, [Oct. 6],” said Kready, about receiving the custom home. “Because the house is adapted, I can get anywhere in it. I’m not relegated to certain spaces. My children can go off into the world without worrying about staying to take care of me. I don’t have to fear the surgeries the doctors have spoken of I tore my gluteus during a seizure and again doing rehab. This home means that I don’t have to fear the future possibilities. I can embrace them, good or bad. I can be a person again.

“Becoming a patient is a strange thing. You lose some of the ability to do the simple things that make you a solitary, autonomous person. To quote some toddlers I know, ‘I can do it myself.’ The freedom in those words is not lost on me.”

A privately-funded nonprofit, HFOT is supported financially from the generosity of others 70 percent from foundations or individuals and 30 percent from corporations supplying grants or tangible items for the homes. 

“There are a number of things that make Homes For Our Troops different from most other organizations in addition to staying with our veterans after we build the home to assist them with rebuilding their lives,” Ivey said. “We link all of our veterans with a pro-bono financial planner for a three-year period so the veterans are building a solid financial foundation, as well as having a mortgage-free home in which to live.

“We build where the veteran wants to live, as that is key to assisting them with rebuilding their lives. Since our inception in 2004, nearly 90 cents of every dollar spent has gone to support our programs, keeping fundraising and overhead very low.”

For more information about HFOT and donation opportunities, visit www.hfotusa.org.