Page last updated at 11:00 GMT, Saturday, 9 April 2011 12:00 UK

Volunteer army builds homes for US wounded heroes

Half-built house for Kenny Lyon in Virginia, US

By Robert Hodierne
BBC News, Virginia

A charity, construction companies, and other volunteers have begun building free houses for some of the more than 1,600 military personnel in the US who have had limbs amputated after being injured in explosions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

By any reasonable estimation, US marine Sgt Kenny Lyon should be dead.

His buddies told him that the mortar landed just 9ft (2.7m) behind him on the day he was hurt in 2006 in Iraq.

Doctors told his family that he would most likely die and, if not, his head injury was so severe - a 3in (7.5cm) diameter chunk of his forehead was blown away) - that, at best, he would have no personality.

Kenny says walking and standing on his leg is like sitting on an unpadded bicycle seat that is set too high

But Kenny did not die. He lost his left leg above the knee, and except for parts of his right leg, there is not a place on his body without gruesome scars.

And his personality was left intact. He is a relentlessly upbeat 25-year-old who knows well that while his life is difficult, it is better than being dead.

Two years after being blown up, Kenny and his marine friend Steven Kiernan, who lost both of his legs, decided they needed to get out of military housing and into an apartment.

The problem was there were not many apartments suitable for two guys who only have one leg between them.

US marine Sgt Kenny Lyon
Sgt Kenny Lyon got to walk through his front door in less than a week

Let me tell you something about artificial legs - they are uncomfortable.

Kenny says walking and standing on his leg is like sitting on an unpadded bicycle seat that is set too high.

If he wears his leg too much and walks too far, he works up blisters on his stump and is stuck in his wheelchair until the blisters heal.

Kenny often takes off his leg with the same relief one would feel when taking off a pair of shoes that are too tight.

But that puts him back in his wheelchair. And that brings me back to the apartment he and Steven found.

Community spirit

Like all standard housing, the place they moved into in Virginia had doors that were too narrow for wheelchairs.

The shower was the biggest nightmare. There were no safety grab bars and even these macho warriors were scared they would fall and knock themselves out.

Which brings me to Dawn Settle.

Dawn works for a Virginia company that builds homes. Last summer she read an article about Homes for Our Troops, a charity that builds homes for disabled veterans at no cost to the veteran.

Marine Sgt Steve Kiernan
Sgt Steve Kiernan's home was built in 31 days

Dawn went to her bosses and told them that they should build one of those homes.

Before the recession, Dawn's company was putting up 250 new homes a year. Last year it was 50, so you would think her bosses might have been reluctant. But they weren't, and last summer they built a home for Kenny's buddy Steven.

They got carpenters, plumbers and electricians and all the other tradesmen they needed to donate their skilled labour. The cement, wood and pipes and even the sod for the lawn were donated.

It is a nice home laid out over 2,600sq ft (242sq m), with four bedrooms and two bathrooms. It would cost you $400,000 (£244,000) to build a home like that.

Record-breaking effort

The team built Steven's home in 31 days, which was a Homes for Our Troops record.

But records, as they say, are meant to be broken and a builder in Atlanta then built one in 26 days.

The men and women at Dawn's company had found the experience of building Steven's home deeply gratifying.

They felt good about themselves, which had been tough when business was as rotten as it had been. So they signed up to build two more.

House nearly finished
Kenny's house had better access than his apartment

As it happened, one of those would be the 100th house that Homes for Our Troops built. It would be for Kenny.

And remember that 26-day record? The team was determined to beat it. Shatter it, actually. Publicly they said they would finish Kenny's home in a week.

They started on a rainy, blustery morning. Several hundred volunteers worked alongside the skilled professionals. With the donated food and drink, it had the festive, community air of a 19th Century barn raising.

The various teams worked around the clock and after 76 hours and 21 minutes, the house was finished.

For those who remember the Vietnam War, this particular community event was especially poignant.

Americans were not building homes for disabled Vietnam veterans.

At best, they ignored them. Many Americans who hated the Vietnam War found it easy to hate the veterans.

I hesitate to call this progress, but Americans have learned that it is possible to hate the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and yet love the troops.

It is common to see Americans in airports burst into spontaneous applause at the sight of a group of service members in uniform (much, I must add, to the acute embarrassment of the troops themselves).

But the sad part of this story is that Homes for Our Troops has a new slogan, and a new goal - 100 more.

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