Purple Heart Homes: A place to come home to

By Christian Mysliwiec - Staff Writer
Manchester - posted Thu., Feb. 14, 2013
Staff Sgt. Sandra Lee will be the recipient of a new, adapted home in Manchester from Purple Heart Homes. Photos by Christian Mysliwiec.
Staff Sgt. Sandra Lee will be the recipient of a new, adapted home in Manchester from Purple Heart Homes. Photos by Christian Mysliwiec.

For many who returned home from war, the battle did not stop. Many service-disabled veterans found that their homes – not built to accommodate their handicaps – were barriers to the healing process, when they should have been places of recovery. For those whose wounds were emotional and mental, it takes the care and compassion of an entire community to help them heal. One organization, Purple Heart Homes, is facilitating both solutions for veterans.

When SSG Dale Beatty and SPC John Gallina returned home after both were disabled by an anti-tank mine in Iraq, they realized first-hand the need to provide housing for service-disabled veterans. They formed Purple Heart Homes, which provides those housing solutions, be it adapting a house or building a new one.

In Manchester, Purple Heart Homes is adapting a house for Staff Sgt. Sandra Lee. On Tuesday, Jan. 29, Purple Heart Homes held an official kick-off ceremony for the project. Speaking to the audience gathered in Cheney Hall, Lee told the community her story. A Korean-American originally from Portland, Oregon, she was an only child, and her parents were divorced at an early age. She was very determined to be a successful career woman in the field of foreign affairs and humanitarian aid. Additionally, her constant hope and dream was for a home and a family.

For Lee, the events of Sept. 11, 2001, changed everything. “It made me reexamine my life and all that I wanted to accomplish,” Lee said. She put her education and dreams of a career and home on hold to join the Army. In December 2003, she deployed to Baghdad, Iraq. She served as a project manager tasked with rebuilding schools in western Baghdad and acting as a liaison between the involved parties.

“We lived on adrenaline 24/7, because we never knew when the next RPG would come flying through onto the base, or when the next IED would be detonated while driving to our destinations,” she said.

Lee was injured by an IED explosion while driving in a convoy. They returned to base, where she received medical assistance, and was released. “Then literally, not two hours later, we were called to do sweeps of the main supply route for possible IEDs,” she said.  “I remember thinking to myself, 'This cannot be possible. I just got blown up.' But my team and I pressed on, because that's just what we did. We were soldiers: so we soldiered on.”

That was the first of four IED explosions by which Lee was injured. To add to her trauma, she was sexually assaulted by another soldier in her unit.

The emotional fatigue, the pain, and the headaches built up day after day, but she and her unit ignored those feelings in the interest of the mission. When she returned to the United States, she tried picking up where she left off, and continued to pursue her bachelor's degree. But the experiences of Iraq could no longer be suppressed. She suffered from depression, constant headaches and recurring night terrors. She did not know that she was struggling with severe post-traumatic stress disorder. Every day, Lee wanted to just give up.

She eventually got help. She spent six months as an in-patient at a hospital for PTSD. “My road to recovery has not been an easy one, not by any means, for me or any soldier who returned from Iraq or Afghanistan and fought for our freedom,” she said. “We returned home changed. Many of us returned physically, emotionally and mentally broken, and in bad need of repair. I know I did.”

Lee still struggles with brain injury and depression. She suffers from short-term memory loss, vertigo, headaches and debilitating nightmares. “I have my good days and my bad days. And as time goes on and I continue to heal from my wounds, I'm finding more good days than bad,” she said.

Her dream of a home and family brought her to Manchester, where Purple Heart Homes is bringing that dream to life. “I have fallen in love with this town and its people,” she said. “Living in Manchester, for the first time in my life I have a sense of home and community.”

As a military project manager, she wants to get involved in projects that will help her new community grow and prosper. She is pursuing a master's degree in integrated health and healing, and wants to help other veterans and their families cope and deal with PTSD.

“I am humbled, appreciative, and so thankful that Manchester has rescued me,” Lee said. “For that I will remain forever grateful.”

Community involvement is key to the success of every Purple Heart Homes project, and Manchester has risen to the occasion. State Sen. Steve Cassano (D-4) saw the success of the program in neighboring Glastonbury and worked to bring it to Manchester. Mayor Leo Diana also worked to bring the program to town. There were those who helped coordinate contractors, such as Liz Tracy and Scott Garmin, directors of Rebuilding Together. There is Dave Sposito, who will be the general contractor of the project. There are all the volunteers who offered to help during construction, as well as the organizations and businesses in town who have offered their support. And behind it all is the northeast regional director of Purple Heart Homes, Vicki Thomas.

Thomas first met Lee in May 2012. “I could see when I talked to her, her shyness, her reserve, her need to recover,” said Thomas, “her need to find a place.” Seeing Lee address the audience at the kick-off was one of her most satisfying and joyful moments for Thomas, and is the reason she does what she does. “It made us realize we do more than provide the housing solution. We also provide the healing mechanism," she said.

Volunteers are always welcome. Whether you are a professional tradesman, want to help with the home's interior or exterior, want to assist with fundraising, or want to help but do not know how, contact Thomas at 203-984-2138 or vthomas@purplehearthomesusa.org.


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