TRIANA — It was almost a year to the day that developers Louis and Patti Breland announced they would build mortgage-free adaptive homes for two Bronze Star and Purple Heart recipients, both amputees from North Alabama.
In June, one of those Wounded Warriors, Army Sgt. 1st Class Scott Barkalow and his wife Tina moved into their adaptive home in Athens.
Thursday, Grammy-award winner Lee Greenwood, national ambassador for the Helping a Hero Foundation joined local veterans’ groups and elected state and county officials to welcome Staff Sgt. Michael Brown, his wife Kim and daughter Alyssa, to their adaptive home in the Crossings at River Landing community.
“When I applied just one year ago, I expected it to be a long and drawn-out ordeal that might bear fruit some distant day,” a clearly emotional Brown said. “Nowhere in my wildest dreams, did I expect to be thrust into the spotlight and handed the figurative and literal key to our family’s future within a year.”
It was not only a beautiful day for a celebration but a patriotic one.
The ceremony opened with a color guard, Pledge of Allegiance, and a prayer, followed by American Idol performer Maddye Trew singing a moving rendition of the National Anthem.
“This is what America is about and this is what Helping a Hero is all about,” said Meredith Iler, founder of the Helping a Hero Home Program as she presided over the “Welcome Home Ceremony.” “It’s us coming together and saying, ‘thank You’ in a tangible way to these men and these women for their sacrifice.
“You are so blessed here in Alabama, to have great leadership that understands the needs of our men and women who volunteer to wear the cloth of our country. Time and time again, the North Alabama community has stepped up.”
Madison County Commission Chairman Dale Strong introduced the Brelands to Greenwood after they inquired about how they could step up to meet the 100 Homes Challenge offered by Bass Pro Shop founder Johnny Morris and build 100 adaptive homes for wounded veterans.
“Alabama understands what America all is about,” said Strong. “It’s a team effort and we couldn’t do it without everyone working together.”
Alabama Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth said his greatest honor is getting to chair the Military Stability Commission and to fight for the men and women and the veterans in the state.
“In the last four years, we have passed over 22 bills in Alabama to make us the most veteran and military supportive state in the country,” Ainsworth said. “Here’s the reality – we don’t have America; we don’t have Alabama; without your service to our country.
“And thank you to Lee and Helping a Hero for standing up for our Alabama values. We need that more than ever, and you are true Americans for what you do.
“Huntsville is the No. 1 city in the country because of the people of Alabama and how they give back. Alabama is great because of people like the Brelands.”
Greenwood sang what he said was his favorite song and one in which he opens his USO Tours, “Stars and Stripes and the Eagle Flies.”
“It’s pretty important to have people behind the scenes who are unselfish, giving, and who have a heart for America and our military,” he said after the song. “The Brelands are magic. They are wonderful American citizens, and it is a privilege for me to be associated with them and our foundation.
“We couldn’t do this without them.”
Breland, who is always humble to praise, said he never thought he would see the day when he was introduced to an audience by Greenwood.
“Our veterans are just incredible people. We wouldn’t be here without their sacrifice,” he said. “I travel around the world and every time I come back, people ask me, ‘What did you learn from traveling abroad?’
“What I learned is the United States is the most incredible place – everyone who is born with a U.S. passport is a very lucky person who has a fighting chance to make it because of our veterans.
“But I want to make it clear. I’m just one person. I’m surrounded by a great team, and I thank the suppliers and contractors that made it happen. It takes a family, it takes a village, it takes a team. We would be nothing without them!”
Three veteran amputees and upcoming adaptive home recipients from around the nation joined the ceremony to speak about Brown and the Helping a Hero program.
Marine Lance Cpl. Eric Fraser and his wife Erica, whose adaptive home is under construction in Manchester, Tenn., said he had been living in a house where he couldn’t get his wheelchair through a single door in his home.
“Not having the things, we know are out there, like wider doorways, rolling showers and a bench and shower wand so he can be safe in his home when he is alone, are the things Helping a Hero can provide,” Iler said.
Staff Sgt. Ross Cox, who has an adaptive home in Montana, nominated Brown for the home he and his family moved into Wednesday. He said he understands first-hand the adage “It is better to give than receive.”
“Everybody calls us heroes, right?” he said directly to Brown. “But I believe the heroes are those who pulled me out of the dirt and put me onto the helicopter.
“I don’t think this opportunity is about what you did. I truly believe it’s about what you are going to do.”
Double-amputee Army Cpl. Frank Fields said the program shows him that even after getting blown up in Iraq 15 years ago, the people did not forget America and did not forget him.
“This is the message I want to leave you with – This is a nation that cannot be defeated… we might be crippled, no pun intended … but we cannot be defeated,” he said.
As Greenwood presented the new house key to the Brown family, Iler said it is the first home Helping a Hero has been able to build for an active-duty service member.
She said until eight years ago, active-duty personnel were not allowed to accept gifts over $250. Helping a Hero worked with the Department of Defense and Congress to pass a law that lets them build homes for wheelchair bound, amputees and others who need adaptive housing if they are an E6 or below.
“Life has a funny way of giving you the exact amount of struggle you need – not what you can handle – but what your path to growth can support,” Brown said. “I knew at 22, looking at the un-amputated mess that I called my leg, I was not prepared for the fight ahead.
“However, through the long days of pain some call physical therapy, but I consider hospital-sponsored torture, to the years of working to accept his new body image, confirmed for me what disabled really means, and I wasted more time than I should have feeling sorry for myself and grieving.
“But the love and support I received taught me a powerful lesson that reshaped me into the man I am today. Trust me when I tell you, this house is a much-needed blessing and will pre-empt the worries I have had from this day forward.”