Wednesday, July 16, 2008

For injured veterans, a free place to live

Nonprofit teams with apartment complex to provide living space for families of soldiers receiving treatment at Walter Reed

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J. Adam Fenster⁄The Gazette
Army Staff Sgt. Christopher Payne of the 101st Airborne shows his 5-year-old son, Christopher, his room Tuesday in their new rent-free apartment at The Enclave in the White Oak neighborhood of Silver Spring.
When Army veteran Mike Hicks, 24, returned from Iraq with a leg shattered by explosives, he spent more than a year recovering at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., living with his wife, Jennie, and their 13-month-old son in a cramped room at Walter Reed’s community housing.

But the room was too small, Hicks said, leaning on his crutches on Tuesday inside the posh lobby of The Enclave Apartments in the White Oak neighborhood of Silver Spring. The family needed somewhere else to go while he finished treatment.

Now, thanks to a nonprofit organization and The Enclave, the Hicks family will be able to settle into their own furnished apartment, complete with kitchen and bathroom — for free.

The Enclave Apartments, located at Route 29 and New Hampshire Avenue, will be housing wounded veterans and their families in rent-free, fully furnished apartments while the soldiers are treated at Walter Reed.

‘‘We’ve been so excited ever since we found out,” Jennie Hicks, 20, said. ‘‘I’m already packing.”

The program is headed by Operation Homefront, a national nonprofit organized after Sept. 11, 2001, by military wives to give military families extra financial and emotional support.

Operation Homefront Villages, the program providing free housing at The Enclave, focuses on soldiers who are out of the military and cannot receive any military benefits except a Veterans Affairs check, which averages 18 months to kick in, said Meredith Leyva, founder of Operation Homefront.

Leyva said the need to provide temporary, transitional housing came up when she realized most of the organization’s money was going to help recovering soldiers with mortgage payments while they waited for their VA check.

The first key of the 15 two- and three-bedroom apartments at The Enclave dedicated to the veterans was handed out in a welcoming ceremony Tuesday.

More than 100 military officers, politicians, donors, soldiers and their families—many of them with young babies perched on their hips—were present to celebrate the occasion.

U.S. Rep. Donna F. Edwards (D-Dist. 4) of Fort Washington, who grew up in a military family, was on hand to express her support for Operation Homefront Villages.

‘‘I feel really strongly about the responsibility we have to provide every available opportunity to our service members,” she said.

The Enclave is the second apartment complex in the nation to participate in the program. The other is in San Antonio for veterans recovering from Brooke Army Medical Center.

The number of apartments available for veterans at The Enclave should triple within the next two years, said J’aime Hurt, the general manager for Riverstone Residential Group, which owns The Enclave.

One hundred doctors and nurses from Walter Reed already live in The Enclave, Hurt said. Its location is ideal, less than six miles away from Walter Reed.

But it’s not just about the location, Leyva said. The apartments will provide a supportive community where soldiers can be around each other, and have access to onsite counselors, financial advisors and career help.

For wounded soldiers, the emotional support is just as important as the housing, Leyva said.

‘‘You cannot be isolated at a time like this. It’s just very detrimental,” she said.

Operation Homefront runs entirely on donations, Leyva said. Several Maryland-based defense companies have donated funds toward The Enclave program, such as Lockheed Martin, which donated $1 million.

Jim Knotts, the director of corporate citizenship at Lockheed Martin, said the donation was a way to express gratitude for the soldiers’ service.

‘‘They’ve done so much for us, and they deserve this kind of treatment,” he said.

Army Sgt. John Pruciner, 21, has a prosthetic left leg and a long, vicious scar running down his left arm. He said he and his fiancée, Erica Lagelanet, 20, applied for an apartment as soon as they heard about the program. The move would help them financially, he said.

‘‘She’s not in school right now, she’s taking care of me,” he said of his fiancée. ‘‘And I just got blown up.”

Pruciner said free housing would help them pay Lagelanet’s school loans. She dropped out of school in New York and left her job at Teen Vogue magazine to be with Pruciner at Walter Reed while he recovered.

The couple will live in a small room at Walter Reed’s community housing until they are accepted into the program.

Despite the presence of military officers and politicians at Tuesday’s ceremony, Pruciner, Hicks and the other veterans were the focus of attention.

Retired Brig. Gen. John Howard, a Vietnam veteran and one of Operation Homefront’s board members who stocked each apartment with a computer through his technology company CDW-G, said the country is realizing the need to provide better care to United States soldiers returning home from war.

‘‘We see that we treated people back then pretty badly, and I don’t think as a nation we’ll ever make that mistake again,” he said.