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Donors give injured vet his dream house

Posted 8/23/12

The day Army Sgt. Dennis Leonard lost his legs began like many other days. He was on his second tour of duty in Iraq, and his job was to complete a standard mission – clear a route of bombs. He and his mates had completed the first half of their …

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Donors give injured vet his dream house

dennisleonardgroundbreakingThe day Army Sgt. Dennis Leonard lost his legs began like many other days. He was on his second tour of duty in Iraq, and his job was to complete a standard mission – clear a route of bombs.

He and his mates had completed the first half of their mission on Jan. 13, 2007, when something happened.

A blast rocked his tank. It was an IED, or an improvised explosive device, and it would leave Leonard’s tank commander dead and Leonard seriously injured.

The details of what happened next are a bit fuzzy for Leonard, and he relies on information he learned later by others who were there.

Help arrived and attempted to pull Leonard from the truck.

“I was fighting to stay in,” said Leonard, of Hummelstown. “It felt like my legs were trapped.”

A burning sensation ripped through his legs, and organized chaos ensued as medics began working on the soldiers.

“They were letting us know everything was going to be alright,” he said. “We could hear MedEvac coming.”

Then Leonard woke up. He was in a field hospital, and it was there he found out the extent of his injuries – he had lost both of his legs.

Leonard knew he needed to call his parents, just to let them know he was alive.

“He was always saying he didn’t want two soldiers coming up to our door,” said his mother, Joanne Baker. Still, receiving a call from her wounded son was “very scary.”

“Him calling made it a little easier, knowing he could call,” said Dave Baker, his stepfather.

The blast changed Leonard’s life, but it certainly didn’t end it. He uses a wheelchair to get around. 

“The biggest change is just getting around places,” said Leonard. “You don’t realize how many places aren’t wheelchair accessible – a lot of business that aren’t – until you’re in one.”

Now Leonard, who lives with his parents, will get his own custom built home in Lower Swatara Twp., thanks to the kindness of strangers and Helping a Hero, a nonprofit organization in Houston, Texas that provides support to severely injured military personnel, and local donors.

Leonard and his new home is scheduled to be featured on an episode of ABC’s “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.’’

Helping a Hero builds homes for military personnel injured during active duty that will help them transition into their communities. The homes are custom built for each veteran.

For those in wheelchairs, kitchen counters, appliances, and outlets are built height-specific and ramps and an elevator are installed, said Meredith Iier, the organization’s founder.

Leonard’s home will also include a roll in shower, roll under sink, adapted toilet area and safety exits, including one outside of his bedroom.

Homes are positioned to let in little light, and an extra air conditioning unit is included so vets who are burn victims can set the temperature comfortably without affecting their family.

“We try to take their whole lifetime journey into account,” said Iier. “We’re taking all things into consideration.”

The homes are built with enough bedrooms and bathrooms to accommodate a growing family, in case the veteran gets married or has more children.

On average, one home costs $250,000 to build. A community raises $100,000, and the veteran is responsible for a $50,000 mortgage.

The groundbreaking for Leonard’s home was one of four in four states in five days, said Iier.

More than 60 people were in attendance for the ground-breaking of the house on July 19, including friends, family, and community leaders like State Rep. Glen Grell.

The home wouldn’t be possible without the help of two men with an idea. 

Bob Egley and Don Jacobs wanted to have a golf tournament and donate the money to a charity.

“I heard of Helping a Hero, so I looked at it and really liked what I saw,” said Jacobs. “We thought we could raise $500 to $1,000, but it sort of got out of control.”

Through donations and the tournament, they raised over $100,000 at last year’s tournament, with the help of Mechanicsburg North Rotary and Carlisle Rotary clubs.

It was easy to raise the money, but finding a vet was the hard part, said Jacobs.

“We didn’t know it would be difficult, but we felt duty bound,’’ he said. “We were trying to do this for someone from Pennsylvania.We were lucky to find someone in the local area.”

Work on the home is scheduled to begin next month and to be completed around Christmas. Leonard will continue to live with his parents until it is finished.

“My mom wouldn’t mind me staying here forever,” Leonard laughs. “This is just the next step in where I need to go in life.”

Leonard enjoys spending time with his family and friends, especially his 8-year-old son, Ethan.

And Leonard enjoys many of the things he did before the war. He camps, rides four-wheelers and hunts whenever he can. His love for the outdoors has led to a dream to start his own business someday – a gunsmith shop.

“There’s not a lot I can’t do,” he said.

His positive attitude is an inspiration to others, and he helps with organizations that hold fund-raisers to help disabled veterans financially and stay involved in hobbies.

“I try to help get people out hunting,” said Leonard.

Leonard and his family appreciate the outpouring of support from others.

“It’s great,” said Joanne. “I wish I was a millionaire, and I could build many houses for [disabled veterans].”

“In these tough economic times, people are still willing to donate, whether it’s a homeless soldier or a disabled veteran,” said Dave. “Patriotism is not dead. People are still willing to give up their last dime.”

Noelle Barrett: 717-944-4628, or noellebarrett@pressandjournal.com


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