Building Homes for Heroes honors our nation’s veterans, one home at a time.
Inspired by his love of country and by his own father’s service, Master Sergeant (MSG) George Vera joined the Army in the 1990s. Twenty years later, in August 2015, Vera was attached to the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-Afghanistan during his fifth deployment to Afghanistan.
“During that time, insurgents hit the front gate of the base with a vehicle-borne IED which killed all eight of the guards and left a large gap,” explained Vera. “After they did that, they started sending in assaulters with suicide vests on, attempting to detonate and kill as many people as possible.”
MSG Vera and his best friend, First Sergeant Andrew McKenna, led two small groups, bravely repelling the attack and killing the assaulters. McKenna was tragically killed, and approximately an hour and a half into the battle, Vera was shot four times, twice in his leg and twice in his back, with the bullets clipping his spine. These injuries left him paralyzed from the waist down, changing his life forever.
These stories of heroism are all around us. The sacrifice of the brave women and men who serve our country, the price they pay for our freedom, often with their lives, is tragically common. When they return home, they continue to pay that price for the rest of their lives.
There are programs, nonprofits and veterans’ services that work tirelessly to thank these brave servicewomen and men by offering support. Building Homes for Heroes is one such program, determined and devoted to bringing renewed hope to our nation’s injured veterans. The organization builds or modifies homes and gifts them, mortgage-free, to injured veterans and their families while providing support services to enable them to build better and brighter lives and reach new heights.
“A hero is someone who understands the responsibility that comes with his freedom.” Bob Dylan
“Each of us holds September 11, 2001, close to our hearts, kind of like Pearl Harbor,” explained Andy Pujol, founder of Building Homes for Heroes.
The story began after the tragedy of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks when Pujol volunteered in the search and rescue side-by-side with our heroic first responders.
“I sat there in the rubble one night, and as I looked around me. I saw fires burning everywhere and smoke everywhere,” said Pujol. “I said a prayer, and in the middle of the prayer, I looked around me and saw all the firefighters, police officers, EMT workers, and I realized for the first time in my life I was seeing true heroes at work.”
Pujol made a pledge that day to serve the country he loved and to help the brave men and women who fought to defend our freedom in the aftermath of those attacks to the present day.
“I was amazed by them. They were so resilient and so determined and never stopped. They had soot all over them from head to toe, and I knew at that point I did, too. I broke down in tears, and I said a prayer and asked God for forgiveness and to stay with me and give me the opportunity to serve my country in a way that was meaningful.”
Pujol wanted to join the military but learned he was too old to serve. Soon after, Building Homes for Heroes was born with the hope of gifting a single home to a single veteran. Thirteen years later, thanks to the help of tireless volunteers, supporters and generous corporations, the dream has grown to over 300 homes gifted to our nation’s injured veterans by the end of 2022.
To honor the 343 firefighters lost in New York on September 11, 2001, Building Homes for Heroes set a lofty goal of providing 343 homes by September 11, 2023. “We accomplished our goal,” said Vice President and General Counsel of Building Homes for Heroes, Kim Vesey. “We did gift our 343rd home on September 10th in honor of the 343 firefighters New York City firefighters we lost on 9/11.”
Vesey began her work with Building Homes for Heroes as a volunteer in 2008 and joined the board full-time in 2012. For Vesey, the work is personal. “My brother was an Army Ranger. On March 12th, 2008, he was injured in Iraq, losing both of his legs and injuring a portion of his right arm,” Vesey said. “I worked with Andy to build an apartment for him to come home from the hospital, and then I dedicated the rest of the time ever since doing this for other families.”
Every 11 days, Building Homes for Heroes presents a new home to a veteran in need, with a goal of providing 400 homes by 2024. They recently opened a new program to assist the first responders on September 11th. “We did just open up our program to assist officers, firefighters, and EMS workers that were injured,” said Vesey.
“May we never forget, freedom isn’t free.” Unknown
When MSG George Vera returned from Afghanistan, he and his wife Angela, along with their young daughter, moved into a small apartment outside Tampa, Florida. A devoted family man of action who enjoyed swimming with his daughter, cooking and spending time with his family, Vera found himself in a cramped apartment that was not handicapped accessible, unable to move about his own home.
“My parents’ room wasn’t accessible, so they always had to go to my room early, and he would need help,” explained Vera’s daughter, fighting back tears. “Sometimes he didn’t even want to get up out of his bed anymore.”
Vera’s independence and freedom before his accident seemed to be gone forever. He could no longer swim with or even care for his daughter. Gone were the days when he could cook dinner for his family. Every move required the help of his wife or daughter.
“On Christmas Eve, I received a wonderful phone call,” said Angela Vera, George Vera’s wife. “It was Andy Pujol of Building Homes for Heroes. He called me, he introduced himself, and he said, ‘Angela, I want to give you a home.’” That one phone call forever changed their lives.
Now living in a lovely home in Land O’ Lakes, Florida, with a completely customized kitchen, two large, customized bathrooms and a pool, Building Homes for Heroes has provided the Vera family with much more than a home. The program provides ongoing support for the family, including a NAPFA financial planner who provides pro-bono financial advice and guidance to plan for a successful future.
The difference this has made to the Vera family’s lives is life-changing. “Building Homes for Heroes gave the opportunity for my husband to be independent, to do things on his own,” said Angela Vera. “Building Homes for Heroes gave the opportunity for my daughter to do normal things in this house.”
With the gift of this new home, Vera has a new sense of independence. “It gives us a lot of the opportunity to spend time together. I love to cook, and the kitchen is accessible. The home also gives us a lot of time for recreation. We have a beautiful pool out there.
My daughter loves to get into the pool, and now I’ll be able to go in there with her because of how the pool is designed. That’ll help my wife to be able to relax. She doesn’t have to be right there, babysitting either myself or my daughter. I can start taking more of a role as a parent now and start doing more things that will help her life become a little easier.”
For Pujol and Vesey, the change, independence and joy brought to veterans’ lives are their job’s highlights. “Seeing the relief on the veteran’s face when they watch their children walk through the house, knowing that they no longer have to worry about how they’re going to take care of their family,” makes it all worthwhile for Vesey.
“I loved to go swimming, and my dad always liked to go swimming with me,” said Vera’s daughter. “But the pools were not accessible. Building Homes for Heroes gave us a pool that is rolling; he can just go in his wheelchair inside the pool. He can go underwater now to go swimming all the time.”
Even though the pool is remarkable, one room holds special meaning for Vera’s daughter. “One of the things I most enjoy doing in the house is going into my dad’s room, where he has military things. When I go into that room, it’s so special to me. It shows me what he did. It shows me what freedom is, what freedom costs for my daddy. It cost so much for him; it cost his legs and his best friend. They gave us freedom in this house, and that’s what I’m thankful for.”
For more information, buildhomesforheroes.org.