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Free houses for combat-wounded vets, survivors

Sep. 2, 2012 - 03:47PM   |   Last Updated: Sep. 2, 2012 - 03:47PM  |  
Disabled Army veteran Pete Sutherland in front of his Jacksonville, Fa., home, which was given to him through the Military Warrior Support foundation.
Disabled Army veteran Pete Sutherland in front of his Jacksonville, Fa., home, which was given to him through the Military Warrior Support foundation. (Bob Self / For Gannett Government Media)
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HOW TO APPLY

The qualifications for the Military Warriors Support Foundation’s Homes 4 Wounded Heroes, only one of the initiatives providing mortgage-free homes to wounded veterans and families of fallen troops:
1. Must be a combat-wounded veteran (Purple Heart recipient preferred) or unmarried spouse of a service member who died in Operation Enduring Freedom or Operation Iraqi Freedom.
2. Must be honorably retired or separated from the military. (Those with compelling situations who are fewer than 90 days from retirement or separation may be considered.)
3. Must not have a mortgage.
Go to www.militarywarriors.org/openhomes to learn more.

Disabled Army veteran Pete Sutherland and his wife couldn't afford a handicapped-accessible home, so he couldn't shower unless she was home to help — he had already fallen twice and broken ribs.

But in February, the family's fortunes changed radically when the 100-percent-disabled Sutherland received a mortgage-free home in Jacksonville, Fla., through the Military Warriors Support Foundation's Homes 4 Wounded Heroes program.

The program is a partnership with Chase, Bank of America, Wells Fargo and GMAC Mortgage — which donate some bank-owned properties, generally acquired in foreclosures.

Operation Homefront has begun a similar home donation effort this year with Chase, Bank of America and Wells Fargo.

The nonprofits forward veterans' requests to the banks, including ZIP codes, and the banks try to meet the requests out of their property inventories, deeding the homes to the nonprofits.

Sutherland, 37, is medically retired due to injuries from multiple combat gunshot wounds received in Iraq in 2004. He and his family now have a four-bedroom, 2½-bath brick house with two large living rooms, a dining room and a pool in one of Jacksonville's best neighborhoods.

Chase, which donated the home, paid for renovations and repairs, gutted and rebuilt the bathroom to make it handicapped-accessible and installed handrails so Sutherland, who uses a wheelchair about one-third of the time, could use the pool.

Tim Keefe, a spokesman for Chase, said the bank typically spends $35,000 to $50,000 to renovate the houses it donates.

The bank, which also works with the nonprofit Building Homes for Heroes, has given away 270 homes since 2010 and is committed to giving away 1,000 homes by 2016.

Bank of America announced Aug. 24 a three-year commitment to donate up to 1,000 homes to nonprofits and local governments that provide homes for injured veterans and first responders.

The country's largest banks have been tarnished by charges of illegal foreclosures and other improprieties. Tyler Smith, a Wells Fargo vice president, concedes one reason the bank donates these homes is "reputation management."

But he insisted that's not the only reason. He said Wells Fargo also created the donation program to help stabilize, and give back to, communities — and "to give back to those who serve our country."

Military Warriors Support Foundation started home giveaways about two years ago, said retired Army Lt. Gen. Leroy Sisco, chief executive officer.

To date, the group has helped the banks give away 200 homes in 29 states. It hopes to give away 1,000 in the next four years.

Troops wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan and surviving, un-remarried spouses of troops killed in those conflicts can apply; about 400 applicants are on the list. "We vet them very thoroughly," Sisco said.

Operation Homefront's eligibility criteria are broader and include those who have been honorably discharged. But the group's first priority is helping wounded warriors living in Operation Homefront transitional housing, said spokesman Aaron Taylor. The charity, which started its Homes on the Homefront program this year, has helped put 22 families in donated homes.

The charities also ensure the homes and neighborhoods are suitable.

After troops move in, the charities require them and their spouses to undergo two to three years of financial counseling and mentoring. After that, the nonprofits deed the homes to the veterans.

"One of the best aspects of this program is the financial mentoring," Sutherland said. "We'll get rid of our debt and have the right tools to make good decisions down the road."

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