It's a home makeover for wounded soldier

Balto. Co. woman injured in Iraq is helped by group that rehabs veterans' houses

May 25, 2006|By LAURA BARNHARDT | LAURA BARNHARDT,SUN REPORTER

Army Sgt. 1st Class Juanita Wilson lost part of her arm during combat in Iraq. She's raising her daughter while her husband is stationed at a military base in Georgia. And she re-enlisted as an active reservist last month, happy to continue serving her country despite having to commute 100 miles each day to her new job.

But frankly, she said, the broken garage door was starting to bother her.

Carrying in firewood for the wood-burning stove wasn't easy with her prosthesis, and she wasn't sure when the foyer would be painted.

Then the 32-year-old Baltimore County woman heard about Rebuilding Together, a nonprofit organization that is launching a program to rehab houses of injured veterans. And yesterday, her three-bedroom house in Rosedale looked like the set of a home makeover show.

"That's exactly what this is like," said Wilson, as 40 volunteers painted, planted and repaired everything from the leaking plumbing to the front door knob.

"It's really making a difference," she said. "I'm so thankful."

Wilson, 32, was injured when a makeshift bomb exploded under her armored Humvee vehicle nearly two years ago near Baghdad. She said she remembers thinking about her then-6-year-old daughter and saying what she thought would be her last prayer.

"Fortunately, I never finished it," said Wilson, who was rescued and taken by helicopter for treatment. Her left arm was amputated below the elbow. She received a Purple Heart, and is now working as a supply and logistics sergeant at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, where she had been a patient.

Wilson, who grew up in Chicago before joining the service, and her husband bought their split-foyer house in Rosedale while she was still in physical therapy, learning to use her prosthetic arm and hand. Her husband, who joined the Army after her injury, is now in the midst of a three-year tour.

Wilson's story has been included in several news accounts of the increasing number of women soldiers who have lost limbs in combat, and she is believed to be the first mother to suffer such injuries.

Barbara Flower, a 42-year-old mother of two from Parkton, was among the volunteers inspired to pitch in on the work yesterday.

"There's no place else I wanted to be," she said.

Flower is a mortgage lender who works for Countrywide Home Loans, which is a corporate sponsor of Rebuilding Together projects. But yesterday, she was assigned the job of replacing doorknobs with door levers.

"They're easier to use," said Flower.

Patty Johnson, the chief executive officer and founder of Rebuilding Together, formerly known as Christmas in April, estimated that the volunteers were doing about $30,000 worth of rehabilitation projects in Wilson's home, including installing grab bars and new fixtures in the bathroom and replacing the wood-burning stove with a gas-fueled one. (No more wood to carry.)

TW Perry, a construction supply company, donated some of the materials and several skilled employees to lead the repairs, and local radio station 98 Rock paid for installation of a security system in Wilson's home and two years' worth of monthly fees. Wilson said she had been sleeping on an air mattress with her daughter so she wouldn't be so worried at night while her husband is gone.

Rebuilding Together has worked on about 900 homes of low-income, elderly and disabled homeowners in Baltimore and Baltimore County since 1989, said Bonnie Bessor, executive director of the Baltimore chapter.

Most of the work is done on the last Saturday in April with the help of about 800 volunteers, she said.

The project at Wilson's house was the national launch of a new Rebuilding Together program called "Serving Those Who Serve." With a $1 million, two-year pledge from Countrywide, the organization hopes to renovate 50 to 70 veterans' homes.

"We want the homes to be livable and accessible," said T. J. Cantwell, director of Serving Those who Serve.

Randy Jones, a 62-year-old Baltimore County building inspector, has volunteered with the organization for about four years. He said he was especially glad to work on Wilson's project.

"She's somebody who should get some help," he said.

laura.barnhardt@baltsun.com

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