Where the heart is

Two Tar Heels injured in Iraq prove charity starts at home by building and renovating houses for disabled vets.
By Jeremy Markovich
 

Dave Morrell crawled to the bathroom. He had no choice. In 2010, he had bought a house in a nice Harrisburg neighborhood, with streets bearing such names as Sedgewood Lane and Crimson Oak Court coursing through it. His house is similar to the others on his block: two stories with tan siding and a two-car garage. But his body is different than those of his neighbors. While serving three tours in Vietnam, he was exposed to Agent Orange, a herbicide the U.S. military used to destroy crops that fed the enemy and defoliate trees that provided them cover. He blames it for his diabetes and a host of other health problems. While working construction in the mid-80s, he was on the roof of a gymnasium that gave way. He fell 23 feet, crushing his leg. Doctors inserted pins and grafted bone, trying to make it work. They failed. In October 2005, because of his worsening diabetes, a doctor amputated part of the left leg below the knee.

The Department of Veterans Affairs paid for wheelchair ramps and a shower chair. But its rules kept it from forking over the thousands of dollars he needed to renovate his house. For that, the VA required him to be a double amputee. The biggest obstacle was his bathroom doorway, which was too small for his wheelchair. It needed but didn’t have 33 inches of clearance, so the wheels banged against the trim. He tried hopping on his right leg, but that hurt his hip. He resorted to crawling on his hands and knees each time he needed to use the toilet or take a shower.

A few months after moving in, Morrell met John Gallina at a friend’s house. Gallina, along with Dale Beatty, is co-founder of Purple Heart Homes Inc., a Statesville-based nonprofit that helps injured vets renovate, build or buy homes. Morrell told him about his problem, and a few months later Purple Heart’s board of directors voted to solve it. The nonprofit negotiated with contractors, getting Charlotte-based Blythe Construction Inc. to donate concrete and Atlanta-based HD Supply Inc. to provide a shower and toilet. Kenneth Bealer Homes Inc. in Mooresville agreed to be the general contractor for free. Purple Heart volunteers tore out all of the carpet, which slowed his walker and wheelchair. They widened the doorways and added a 14-by-20-foot bedroom to the back of the house, giving him more room to maneuver. The work would have cost about $50,000; Purple Heart got it done for about half that.

Morrell’s wheelchair now glides across laminate floors. Ramps access the garage and the patio. The bathroom is spacious, and the tub has a door that lets him roll right in. No more crawling. During a visit to the house, Beatty notes, “He can get in and out of his house. He can take care of himself. He can wash himself.” Morrell quickly interjects: “Don’t tell the nurse I’m having come in.”

 

Beatty, 33, and Gallina, 32, both grew up in Statesville, though they didn’t become friends until joining the National Guard in 1996. Together, they helped with water rescues and security during and after Hurricane Floyd in 1999. Gallina built houses, working for builders such as Winston-Salem-based K.T. Isenhour Construction Co. and Cornelius-based JD North Construction Co. Beatty worked at Cracker Barrel after high school but became a full-time noncommissioned officer in the Guard in 2003. That same year, his unit — the 30th Heavy Brigade Combat Team, an artillery outfit — was activated for duty overseas. Gallina had left the Guard, but when Beatty told him the unit was going to the Middle East, he re-enlisted. In 2004, they headed to Iraq, joining the Army’s 1st Infantry Division.

On Nov. 15, Gallina, Beatty and two other soldiers were traveling in a Humvee, patrolling a road to Fallujah that would soon become a major supply route for American forces. Gallina had been in the gunner’s seat atop the vehicle — Beatty was riding shotgun — but during a checkpoint stop had switched with the driver, who was getting tired. A quarter mile after the switch, the Humvee struck a roadside bomb. Hurled from the vehicle, Beatty was whisked to a military hospital, where doctors removed his right leg. A week later, they took his left. Gallina had been pulled out of the wreckage, or so he was later told. He lost consciousness for 45 minutes. Two discs in his back were shattered, his head split open. Shrapnel was embedded in his arm. When he got home to Statesville, he would have to cope with another injury: post-traumatic stress disorder. “It’s not something that leaves you. It’s like trying to hold a basketball under water — a constant struggle.”

Beatty spent a year recovering at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. Then-President George W. Bush personally awarded him the Purple Heart. Beatty promised himself that once back in Statesville, he would build a house so he could move his wife and two boys out of their rented trailer. But he couldn’t do the job himself and couldn’t afford to have it done. The Iredell County Home Builders Association and a group of volunteers offered to help. Beatty served as his own general contractor — coordinating the volunteers — and invited Gallina, who had been building houses since he was 19, to help. They raised a 2,000-square-foot, three-bedroom home on land donated by Beatty’s father. The experience encouraged them to start Purple Heart Homes in 2008. “We saw that we had a great opportunity to cross many people’s lives,” Gallina says.

The nonprofit isn’t a home builder and doesn’t independently fund construction. It’s a “veteran’s advocate,” Gallina says, but all that really means is Purple Heart coordinates volunteers, sponsors and donations — finding and putting each where needed to complete a project. Applicants must fill out a 15-page application and provide proof that their injuries are related to military service. If its board approves the request, Purple Heart will solicit free work from contractors, free supplies from distributors or help the vet apply for grants, loans and mortgages.

Projects can be small, such as when it helped Buddy Mays of Meansville, Ga., get a grant from San Francisco-based Wells Fargo & Co. for a handicapped-accessible bathroom. It also can afford to build Manny Jimenez, a Marine from Glastonbury, Conn., who lost his arm in Afghanistan, a three-bedroom home valued at about $250,000 because it bought the land for $1 from the local government and got local contractors and volunteers to subsidize labor.

But Purple Heart doesn’t simply give away houses. If the nonprofit obtains a foreclosed home, Gallina says, it will spend time and money renovating it, increasing its overall value. Purple Heart will sell the house to a vet for half the appraised estimate — “The vet has to put skin in it, too,” he says — but will release 10% of the equity each year for a decade. That way he can use the house to help pay for long-term expenses, such as a college education, but Gallina won’t see him cruising the streets in a Cadillac Escalade the following week. “It’s theirs. But we feed them slowly.”

 

Earlier this year, Gallina and Beatty met Paul Reickhoff, who founded the New York-based Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. Reickhoff had been working with Joe Klein, a writer for Time magazine who was trying to find “The Next Greatest Generation,” and was looking for someone who could demonstrate what nonprofits were doing for veterans. Reickhoff introduced Klein to the founders of Purple Heart Homes. That led to an interview, which led to a picture of Beatty and Gallina, along with other vets who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan, on the cover of Time in August.

Interest in Purple Heart Homes increased. More people started to volunteer. More sponsors started contacting them. Fundraising jumped — though not tremendously. In its first year, the nonprofit raised $15,586, followed by $61,927 the next. Gallina expects that to increase 50-75% this year, which would put it at about $100,000. “Just because we’re on Time magazine doesn’t mean we’re millionaires,” Beatty says. “We’re at the tipping point.” Most donors are veterans or middle-age women. Somebody donated $10,000 once, the nonprofit’s largest single financial contribution. A 90-year-old woman regularly sent $5 a month, all she could afford. Her husband was in World War II.

Despite the publicity, Purple Heart has to operate on a shoestring budget. It has five paid employees, two of them new. Beatty doesn’t get paid. He lives off his 100% disability benefits and a VA pension. Gallina gets a paycheck, but he says it may be less than the minimum wage. He lives off 60% disability and a small VA pension, and his wife is a public-school teacher. Purple Heart’s fundraiser only gets commission. What it calls its executive team — nine people with expertise in fields including finance, insurance, law and property development — work for free. Cathryn Overcash, the branch manager of Woodbridge, Va.-based WestStar Mortgage Inc.’s Mooresville office, spends about 20 hours a month helping navigate the mortgage process. “We do it because it matters,” she says.

 

“Open the door,” Morrell says, as he and Beatty enter his house from the garage. “You’ll see my great modification.” It’s a simple strap he uses to pull the door closed. On a wall are mounted pages from the Time issue featuring Purple Heart Homes. Beatty is on the cover, running shoes on his prosthetic feet. Both men look at it. “I made this thing about you,” Morrell says. Beatty grins. He wears shorts — just as he did at the photo shoot — revealing metal limbs that attach to real ones just below his knees. He surveys the renovated home. “This gives Dave that welcome that I received after the fact,” he says, referring to his homecoming. “Guys like Dave fall through the cracks — one, because of his age, two, because of the war he served in, three, because his injury is not at the same level that, say, mine is.”

About an hour and a half into his visit, he realizes he’s out of time. He has a meeting to get to. In 2010, Purple Heart renovated its first two houses. It completed 13 this year and already has 12 on tap for 2012. They’re busy. But before Beatty leaves, he takes a last look at the laminate floors, the American flags, the garage packed with mementos of Vietnam, of motorcycle trips, of friends. “I can tell a viable difference in Dave since I first met him,” he says. “Freedom only means one thing to me, and that’s living without fear.” Sometimes that starts with being able to use the bathroom without crawling.