Program Note: 3 out of 4 young people know someone who is currently serving or has served in Iraq or Afghanistan. Anderson helps MTV shine a light on issues facing young veterans... Check out MTV.com for how to get involved.
[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2008/images/10/23/art.keil.jpg caption="SSG. Matt Keil at his new home." width=292 height=320]
Matt Keil is a 26-year-old veteran of the War in Iraq. While on his second tour of duty in Iraq, he was shot by a sniper, and paralyzed from the neck down.
I went to Parker, Colorado to meet Matt and his wife Tracy, and produce a story about their move into a brand new, fully-accessible, free home from the non-profit organization, Homes for Our Troops. I had no idea what to expect. Matt is only a year out of the hospital and has many special needs. Moreover, cameras can be intrusive, and I didn’t know what his tolerance would be for long interviews. Yet, when I met Matt, I felt ashamed for questioning his endurance or spirit. He is optimistic, has a fantastically dry sense of humor, and has confidently accepted his paralysis- or what he calls his “new normal.” Matt does not want people to feel sorry for him and he’s proud of the fact that he was injured fighting for his country. His only regret is that he wasn’t able to finish the mission.
John Gonsalves’ mission is to “volunteer for America’s greatest volunteers.” He is the president and founder of Homes for Our Troops, and has dedicated his life to building homes for disabled veterans. My crew and I stopped by Matt and Tracy’s new house the day before the dedication to see the organization’s work in action. It was something of a sprint to the finish. Though the home was complete, finishing touches were still being finalized. Outside, I met Erik Freeman who was finishing landscaping. He is a full-time volunteer for Homes for Our Troops and oversaw the entire Keil project. He’s what the group calls a “road warrior” and his RV has been parked in the Keil’s yard since April when they broke ground. Erik lost his wife earlier this year, and has made building homes for disabled veterans his soul’s mission. He has literally lived through every beam, floorboard, nail, and flagpole that went into the Keil’s home, and made sure it was all done right.
Inside, I met Matt Febbi, another full-time Homes for Our Troops volunteer and “road warrior.” He gave me a preview tour of the home and as we were talking he revealed that his son was a Marine who lost his life in Iraq. Matt knew how proud his son was to be serving his country, and now Matt gives his time to Homes for Our Troops as a way to give back to his son and everyone serving and sacrificing for their country. I was struck by the sense of humility and selflessness in each of these men’s faces when they described their contributions.
The day of the ceremony was nothing short of inspiring. A motorcade of “patriot guard riders,” made up of mostly Vietnam War veterans met Matt and Tracy at their old apartment and escorted them to the new home. My cameraman and I had driven ahead to get a shot of them coming down the road. From our vantage point the image of a police escort followed by dozens of motorcycles and a caravan of family members’ cars could have been a somber one. But instead it was triumphant. I realized that every one of the people involved in the building and celebrating of this house was there because they wanted to give back. They were not getting paid, many were working around the clock, and in all cases they wanted to serve and thank America’s military men and women.
After the ceremony, Matt and Tracy hosted a big barbeque and I met many of the volunteers who, as Matt put it “had their fingerprints all over the home,” as well as members of the community who had come out in support of the couple. I met Lorin Ricker who hosts an online radio station focused on veterans’ stories. Lorin says one of his missions is to help give thanks to America’s veterans. He believes it’s something every American can do.
It’s simple, he says. If you see a man or woman wearing a veterans’ hat, or with a purple heart on their license plate, go up to them and say, “thank you for your service.” Five words, ten seconds. Thank them for their service. I tried it just the other day, and I’m pretty sure I saw pride and gratitude in one soldier’s eyes.
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