October 24th, 2008
08:15 AM ET

"Thank you for your service"

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]
Diana Miller
AC360° Producer

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.

Filed under: Back from the Battle • Diana Miller
soundoff (8 Responses)
  1. Loren Hoffman

    Dear Mr. Cooper, I watched your program on the returning vets from our Iraq, Afghanistan and thought that there should be more that can be done.
    I am a Vietnam vet had been divorced twice because of PTSD. The VA only allows me 30% for my disability.
    I now live with a wonderful woman who is a doctor she's been a wonderful help since there is a lot of things that I cannot do for myself.
    I am only one of thousands that the VA will not consider us 100% disabled.
    I think if you go to war for your country and come back with problems physically and mentally that you should get the help you need to get along. My 30% figures out to be $500 a month I also have social security which means I can pay all my bills when do you think our government will recognize our plight and help us.
    All veterans with disabilities mental or physical should be compensated 100% so we can live normal lives and take care of our families.
    Thank you for listening I hope maybe you can help get my point across to mistral Oboma because I think he and Mr. Biden can help us.
    These problems with the VA had been going on for nearly 40 years don't you believe it's time for a change.
    Thank you Mr. Anderson

    October 26, 2008 at 8:59 am |
  2. Keith Kruse

    My name is Keith Kruse and I live in Toledo, Ohio just down the street from Swanton, Ohio Matthew Keil's home town. I know Matt & Tracy and I'm proud to call them Friends. I don't think I'll ever meet two better people in my life time, so thank you for telling their story to the World. Please note that Matt & Tracy are working on changes in the Medical Care Veterans receive in the Denver CO. area and that story is in the November issue of the American Legion page 26.
    Please say a prayer for all Our Soldiers , Veterans and families tonight and remember all their sacrifices on November 11th, Veterans Day !!!

    Keith Kruse
    U.S. Army Veteran 4th DIV 12th INF
    American Legion Post 646
    Patriot Guard Rider
    Heroes In Action Volunteer
    Honor Flight Member

    October 25, 2008 at 9:59 pm |
  3. Joanne, Syracuse, NY

    Please give us contact information so that we may send donations to this cause. We sincerely appreciate ALL the efforts of all veterans. However, we would like to help those severely physically and emotionally impaired by donating to this most worthy cause.

    October 24, 2008 at 12:33 pm |
  4. Annie Kate

    Its amazing to me that we have so many young people who are eager and proud to serve their country in the military. Their bravery and generosity of spirit is representative of all that is laudable about our great country. A simple thank you seems so inadequate but it does express the thankfulness I feel for these fine people who give of themselves to keep our nation secure and the world a bit better place to live in.

    Annie Kate
    Birmingham AL

    October 24, 2008 at 11:22 am |
  5. John C. Booth

    is there some way to get in touch with the organization that was shown last night (10/24/08 at aproximately 2:30am) on the Cooper 360 show of the gtoup that puts up beautiful houses for severly injured GI's. If you could, would you send a phone number or address. Thank you so much. John C. Booth

    October 24, 2008 at 11:16 am |
  6. Amy Thompson

    Thank you so much for telling us about Homes for Our Troops. It is a wonderful charity and I hope that your show has brought it more attention.

    October 24, 2008 at 10:45 am |
  7. Cindy

    This was a great report last night. You need to do way more of this and less politics IMO. It is great that Matt and Tracy got them a new handicapped house. I wish them well!


    October 24, 2008 at 9:26 am |
  8. Alex

    Homes For Our Troops is an extremely worthwhile cause to donate to and I recommend that everyone give whatever you can. Saying "thanks for your service" is also a nice gesture. Also be aware there are tens of thousands of us who served our country in the military who do not advertise the fact. It is not that we are embarrased that we served, it's because we did it for national pride and to repay a debt we feel we owed to our great nation. To be sure, THANKS FOR YOUR SERVICE to all vets, especially those who weren't as fortunate as most of us and didn't make it back. Those folks are the real HEROS!

    October 24, 2008 at 8:54 am |