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"We're here for two of our American heroes." -- Supervisor Dianne Jacob

By Miriam Raftery

March 4, 2013 (El Cajon ) – Army Sergeant Odin Ayala and Marine Corporal Travis Greene each lost both legs serving in combat. But they were all smiles on February 23 at the groundbreakings of their new , specially adapted homes in El Cajon-- thanks to the efforts of the nonprofit Homes for Our Troops. 

“Our motto is rebuilding homes, rebuilding lives,” said Tim McHale with Homes for our Troops.  The group seeks donations as well as volunteers to help build these homes and more.  Local community groups and businesses can also adopt a room, partnering in efforts to help these wounded veterans and others.

Since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, more than 2.2 million U.S. troops have been deployed.  At least 1,558 service members have suffered major limb amputations or spinal cord injuries.  Due to advances in battlefield medicine, more severely wounded soldiers are surviving now than in past wars.

“George Washington said that our veterans returning from war will judge American on how they are treated when they come back,” McHale observed.  Homes for Our Troops has already built many homes in 33 states for wounded veterans. But 1,000 more are needed.

“I remember looking down at my legs. They were already gone,”  said Army Corporal Travis Greene, who was on his third deployment when he lost both legs in Ramadi, Iraq on December 7, 2005.  He was helping a med-evac team with a stretcher to evacuate a Marine injured in an IED blast when a second bomb exploded beneath a truck, causing amputations to five Marines, including Corporal Greene.

“Another soldier was crawling through puddles of fire. People in a helicopter were calling out, `You’re gonna make it,” he recalled.

Gunny Szcepanowski with Wounded Warrior Regiment was with Greene in a hospital in Bethesda, Maryland. “I was there when his body quit fighting and we brought him back,” he said.

Corporal Greene spent over a year and eight months in hospitals, including Balboa Naval Medical Center.  He suffered allergies to medications and complete muscle atrophy. “I couldn’t even roll over,” he said.  Since then, however, he’s begun building a new life.  He got married and now has a five-month-old son. 

Greene said he drew inspiration from Corporal Neil Frustaglio, who was injured in the same blast.  Frustaglio, who traveled from Texas to the groundbreaking, said moving into a home built by Homes for Our Troops has been a “life saving experience” after living in inaccessible housing.

“Neil and I rode across the U.S. together four months after his injury. The resilience of our warriors is alive and well,” said Szepanowski.

Sgt. Jake Keesler, a Fallbrook veteran, has also received a house built by Homes for our Troops. He spoke of how it’s helped him through adaptive features such as a roll-in shower that accommodates a wheelchair. He also thanked Viet Nam Veterans, many of whom participated in the ceremony as part of the Patriot Guard.  “What we have today is because of you,” he said. “Thank you.”

Army Sergeant Odin Ayala was on his third deployment when he lost both legs in an IED blast in Kandahar, Afghanistan on September 14, 2011. While on a search and seizure mission, he stepped on an IED and lost both legs above the knee, as well as the index finger on his left hand. 

Sgt. Ayala rose proudly to his feet, on artificial limbs, to speak after accepteing a proclamation from State Senator Joel Anderson’s office. The Senator’s staff pledged to send a team to come and help build the home.

“To this day, I don’t regret anything,” said Sgt. Ayala, who added that the infantry was his calling.  He spoke of younger soldiers ages 18 and 19 in his unit, then added, “I’m glad it happened to me, not them. I’m not sure they could have handled it.”

He thanked Homes for our Troops and the large crowd present.  “There are so many people here who want to help you out,” he said. “Thank you, they will make my life so much easier. How can I complain when I am still getting gifts like this?” 

His future goals including building a family, earning a master’s degree in engineering, and coaching high school football , a sport he formerly played.

Sgt. Ayala ended by urging the crowd to “keep in your prayers those who are over there still.”

Ayala and Greene will soon have homes across the street from each other on a quiet cul-de-sac on George Maria Way in the Rancho San Diego community in unincorporated El Cajon. 

Supervisor Dianne Jacob welcomed the young veterans to our community, calling them “American heroes.” She thanked them for “fighting for our freedoms” and added, “East County is the best area that you could possibly be living in.”

San Diego has the largest military installation in the world, said Jacob, who added, “In East County we have the highest concentration of military and veterans in San Diego County.”

Homes for our Troops was started in 2004 in Massachusetts by a building contractor.  The 501c3 nonprofit has the highest possible rating from Charity Watch and the American Institute of Philanthropy.  Each homes built by the organization contains over 155 special adaptive features to assist disabled veterans.

They are seeking donations of land, products and services, includes trades people to help with construction. Organizations can adopt a room for $3,000 to $5,000, depending on the room. Donations large and small are welcome. At the local groundbreaking, Broadview Mortgage presented a $17,000 check to the cause.  “A kid in South Caroline sells lemonade and bracelets; she donates about $5,000 every year,” McHale added.

Without adaptive homes, veterans may be confined in wheelchairs to just a couple of rooms for the rest of their lives, McHale said. 

“This is not charity. This is our gift to the Greene and Ayala families for their families,” he concluded.  “We have a moral obligation to help all of our veterans.”

View video of Sgt. Ayala arriving at groundbreaking, flanked by Patriot Guards:

View video of groundbreaking for Sgt. Ayala's house:

View video of groundbreaking of Cpl. Greene's house:

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