HOUSTON, Texas - All she remembers is a loud bang, lots of dust, then nothing but darkness before retired 10-year Navy veteran Jennifer Penn woke up on a hospital bed in Kuwait. A small unknown explosion from what she thinks was a pressure plated improvised explosive device erupted underneath or near her armored vehicle while transporting a patient in 2006. For Penn, the result was a traumatic brain injury, nine ruptured discs down her spine and the complete loss of her fine motor skills that help her do things like aim a weapon or even button a shirt.
After several surgeries, Penn left the Navy as a medically Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class and 100 percent disabled. Although taken care of medically, Penn's living arrangements have always been a struggle, caring for herself and two children in homes not specially adapted for her medical needs. Halls and doorways too narrow for her wheel chair or walker to fit through, steep staircases, doors that open out causing damage each time she needed to leave or enter a room and showers that have no place for her to comfortably sit and bathe.
“It's always been a challenge,” said Penn who still suffers from intense daily pain managed with a host of medications. “I work every day toward being more and more independent but that's a slow process. Takes time. During that time, what I've always needed was a home that helped me ... a home that supported my needs.”
Understanding those needs was the national nonprofit organization “Helping A Hero” who provided Penn with the answer – a new adapted home that she could use to help broaden her independence.
Disabled Navy veteran Jennifer Penn, left, listens as retired Army colonel and President/Executive Director of Helping A Hero Jeff Ragland makes a simple repair to Penn's specially adapted closet door on March 28, 2015. Helping A Hero is a non-profit organization that is dedicated to empowering wounded veterans – one home at a time – by providing specially adapted homes tailored to their disabilities. Since, 2006, the group has awarded 100 homes in 22 states with 35 homes currently under construction. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Chris Fahey)
Helping A Hero's goal is to empower wounded veterans – one home at a time – by providing specially adapted homes tailored to their disabilities. Since, 2006, the group has awarded 100 homes in 22 states with 35 homes currently under construction. These homes are typically 2400-2600 square feet with an average worth of $200K-$250K awarded to 70 percent or greater disabled post 9/11 veterans as proven by the Veterans Administration.
According to retired Army Colonel and Helping A Hero's President/Executive Director Jeff Ragland, the nonprofit's ability to help is resource driven, and the pool of possible awardees is large, so the selection criteria begins by evaluating the actual “need” of the veteran.
“For instance, if you are in a wheel chair like Jennifer, there are special accommodations made allowing her to be as independent as possible in a home that greatly enhances their overall quality of life.”
For Penn, her home has done exactly that. All areas were built under the exact specifications she needs to be mobile and comfortable. Her walkways, hallways and doorways are all spaced to allow room for her wheelchair. Her doors and closets don't swing on hinges but pull in and out from the wall. Her shower has a place for her to sit or stand allowing her the option to choose how she bathes. All entrances are wheelchair accessible. Inside her walls, there are added forms of wood and other customized constructions that allow her to make future modifications adjusted to her rehabilitation. As she becomes more independent and less reliant on her wheelchair, her home can be easily modified to adjust with her.
“I had a huge home before this one ... around 3,400 square feet, but I couldn't move around. There was a side panel that I smashed each time trying to go in and out of this one room,” said Penn.
Those kinds of daily frustrations can often make dealing with disabilities difficult and translate into added labors when trying to adjust to their communities and responsibilities. Each time Penn would knock into a side panel of a narrow door, she would feel more pain. That pain would affect her attitude possibly making her less likely to travel out into the community and interact or require more medication.
“It's that right there that we are also here to help with,” said Ragland. “Helping A Hero understands these difficulties and solving those problems can start with the home, but not just by receiving a free house. Veterans don't usually want a handout; they want a hand up.”
Each veteran is obligated to pay a mortgage on the home of usually approximately $50K and live in the home for at least 10 years.
“The 10 year obligation and mortgage is to help them with stability and getting back into the community,” said Ragland. “After the 10 years and the $50K, they own the home and can do what they need to have a successful life.”
This success is seen through Penn, as she travels across her living room, kitchen, out her door and into the backyard – smiling – nothing intruding her path or causing added obstructions. She joins her daughter and volunteers from Helping A Hero to help stain her fence. A task Ragland said is all part of the deal.
“The military is a family, and we bring that to the program,” he said. “We help make sure we consistently come out and help with all the stuff that yes, the home warranty could handle but it's easier for us to just come out, do the job and see our veteran. Something we enjoy.”
Learn more about Helping A Hero.
By U.S. Navy MCS1 Chris Fahey
Provided through DVIDS
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