A Home to Return To

To date, the Operation Homefront program has awarded veterans 175 houses - 45 of them in California. Residents are expected to pay their homeowner association fees, property taxes, keep up the yard and be good neighbors.

Staff Sgt. Anthony Rios thought it couldn't happen to him. He was a Marine with years of experience and four wartime deployments under his belt. Disbelief was all he felt when injured by a rocket-propelled grenade in May 2010 during a gunfight in Marjah, Afghanistan. Rios was a team chief and artillery scout observer in the last month of a sevenmonth deployment with the 1st Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company. "I have jumped out of airplanes," he says of his 17-year career. "That was me. That was supposed to be my life. It took one rocket to change all that." Rios broke his left femur and knee and sustained a traumatic brain injury; he was in constant pain and says his spirit was crushed. When the doctors told him his days as a Marine were over, he says he felt lost. But he knew he didn't want his injuries to define him. More than three years and a lot of healing later, Rios says he is overwhelmed by the generosity of those trying to help him find his way as a civilian. He is a resident at Operation Homefront Village in Oceanside, one of three OH Villages for wounded warriors in the country. Rios is among 20 local families a year who live rent-free as they leave the service. Rios lives with two of his children in a fully-furnished two-bedroom apartment. The kids share a bunk bed. His companion is his service dog, an American Staffordshire terrier named Bugsy, who Rios literally leaned on for support when he transitioned from wheelchair to crutches. Rios is making his new life at the village as he awaits his medical discharge from the Marine Corps. His counselors teach him how to handle his finances (his former wife used to do that); understand his military benefits; and career skills like writing a resume. His fellow wounded warriors pick him up when he's down. They all share a unique history that only they truly understand. That is a comfort, Rios says.

Rios takes classes with the ultimate goal of becoming a clinical psychologist. "Because of my traumatic brain injury, it will take me a little longer to finish school, but I think my background with post-traumatic stress and my ability to relate to people would be beneficial to a lot of these guys," Rios says. The needs of wounded warriors are a top concern for Operation Homefront, says Jack Chirrick, executive director of Operation Homefront California, based in San Diego. The nonprofit's efforts are national, but the OH presence in California is unique because of the large military population, Chirrick says. More than 28,000 veterans of operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom live in San Diego alone, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. "We have individuals coming back missing limbs, with traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress," Chirrick says. "There is that population out there - the service members with injuries - who aren't easily integrating back into civilian life. These people have made one of the greatest sacrifices a human being can make on behalf of others. We owe them our service."

Counselors teach returning veterans how to handle their finances, understand their military benefits and career skills like writing a resume as they transition back to civilian life.

The ability to find housing when leaving the military can be difficult, especially for wounded warriors, says Paula Pettibone, director of OH Homes on the Homefront, an 18-month-old endeavor that places military veterans from every conflict into foreclosed homes donated by banks. Applicants must be honorably discharged veterans in good legal standing to be considered. About 70 percent of occupants are wounded veterans, Pettibone says. To date, Homes on the Homefront has awarded veterans 175 houses - 45 of them in California. Residents are expected to pay their homeowner association fees, property taxes, keep up the yard and be good neighbors. "Residents have to make an effort to be out there in the community, volunteer and step outside themselves," Pettibone says. "This is particularly important in a clinical sense because of depression." Over the past two months, six families have been given the deed to their homes for living up to their commitment with the program. The veterans' appreciation runs deep. "Our folks who get houses do not take it for granted," Pettibone says.

• The mission of Operation Homefront is to provide emergency financial and other assistance to the families of our service members and wounded warriors. Familiesin- need can get help with essentials like rent; groceries; utility bills; emergency dental bills; and home repairs.

• The OH Villages short-term transitional housing program provides wounded warriors a place to return home when they are making their transition into civilian life. The OH Homes on the Homefront program, in partnership with Bank of America, Chase Bank and Wells Fargo, places military veterans and their families into houses that they can eventually own. and career counseling; and family support.

• Operation Homefront puts 95 cents of every dollar raised into client services.

For more information, go to operationhomefront.net.