A motorcade of flag-bearing motorcycles and sheriff’s patrol cars escorted Army Staff Sgt. Scott Millican to the new house built for him by Homes for Our Troops.
At the end of a lane in the rural outskirts of Statesboro, a couple hundred people gathered for a special housewarming event Saturday morning. Among them were the mayor, a former sergeant major of the Army, a member of Congress, Fort Stewart’s color guard and more of those flag-flying motorcyclists known as the Patriot Guard Riders.
Called a “key ceremony,” it’s the sort of welcome that Homes for Our Troops, a national, charitable nonprofit, likes to give the wounded warriors who receive ownership of the homes at no cost. Millican’s is the 109th house the organization has built. The home has features designed for a wheelchair user, such as wide doors, roll-under cooktops, pull-down cabinets and a spacious roll-in shower.
“When you see this house, you’ll understand what this does…,” Millican told the crowd of well-wishers, his voice breaking with emotion as he thanked everyone for showing up.
He then invited them all inside to enjoy his home. He had waited while other soldiers and civilian dignitaries talked about Homes for Our Troops and thanked him for his sacrifice before handing him the keys.
“When somebody does something like this for you, you don’t even understand how it affects you,” Millican said later, after he had shaken hands with something like 100 people in the receiving line. “This makes it a lot easier for me to be in a home.”
He explained that his wheelchair has knocked the varnish off furniture and scraped the facings of the standard-width doors in his parents’ house nearby.
Two years of recovery
Millican, now 46, has served a total of about 15 years in the Army and National Guard. He served first as an Army medic from 1987 to 1996. Then, while the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were still hot with combat, he re-entered the service with the Georgia National Guard’s 810th Engineers in January 2007.
By 2010, Millican was in his second deployment as a combat engineer. Two years ago this week, while on a mission to clear a route of improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, he became the victim of one. The MRAP – or mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicle – he was riding in rolled over a pressure plate that set of a 250-pound bomb in Ghazni, Afghanistan, on March 16, 2010, according to the account shared by Millican and Homes for Our Troops.
Other soldiers in the vehicle were less seriously injured and recovered to walk again. But the IED went off directly under Millican’s seat. After being airlifted back to the states, he spent 11 months in a Tampa, Fla., veterans’ hospital and then returned to Fort Stewart for continued physical therapy. He has regained movement in his legs, but is left with spinal cord bruising and muscle atrophy, he said.
“The doctors originally told me that I would never walk again and I was really lucky that I lived, is what they basically said. I was blessed. It wasn’t my time,” he said.
Two years after the blast, Milliken is still considered an active-duty soldier. But he is a special unit for transitioning wounded warriors, and undergoing a medical review process to determine his retirement status. With hope for walking again, he wants to pursue further therapy through the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Homes for Our Troops worked with local general contractor Jamey Cartee of St. Andrews Builders to build the home. Millican’s parents, Charles and Carolyn Millican, provided land on their property. Scott Millican is divorced and his two children live in another state. But they visit, and one may come to live with him, he said.
How they’re built
The house encloses about 2,600 square feet and is a standard design used by Homes for Our Troops, said Larry Gill, Homes for Our Troops veterans liaison. The soldiers are given some choices in design details.
With their special features, the average cost of the homes nationally is more than $320,000, according to Homes for Our Troops. Severely wounded service members can qualify for Specially Adapted Housing Grants of up to $63,780 through the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Homes for Our Troops uses the VA’s application process to determine which wounded soldiers qualify for a home. The grants are applied to the costs, and Homes for Our Troops pays the remainder with money from donations and corporate sponsors.
Former Sgt. Major of the Army Kenneth Preston took part in the ceremony, less than a month into his new role as president of Homes for Our Troops. The Massachusetts-based organization was founded by its previous president, John Gonsalves, in 2004, and has since built homes for wounded veterans in at least 35 states.
As sergeant major of the Army from January 2004 until February 2010, Preston was the Army’s most senior enlisted person, and the 13th to hold the rank since it was created in 1966.
He said he has seen many severely wounded soldiers, both during his previous service as the senior sergeant major in Iraq in 2003 and those returning home since then.
“Now transitioning out of the military, it is those young men and women that I worry about, particularly those that are the most severely wounded – what are their opportunities for future employment, to actually get out and compete with the civilian workforce,” Preston said in an interview. “They’re the ones, to my mind, that need the most help.”
Another 100 homes
He will lead Homes for Our Troops as it raises funds for construction of a second 100 homes. Beyond the 109 homes built, 41 veterans or service members have been approved to receive homes and another eight are qualifying, he said.
More than 1,570 service members and recent veterans have been seriously wounded enough to qualify for VA assistance for adaptive housing, Preston said.
Well-wishers gathered under a canopy in Millican’s new front yard to hear brief remarks by a series of speakers. In addition to Preston and Gill, these included Statesboro Mayor Joe Brannen; Capt. Brian Stewart, who is Millican’s company commander in Fort Stewart’s Warrior Transition Unit; and U.S. Rep. John Barrow.
Noting that the Department of Veterans Affairs has a program to help wounded service members adapt existing housing to their needs, Barrow commented that the VA’s processes are cumbersome and bureaucratic. Its program has very limited funds and tries to work within the limitations of existing homes, he added.
“What I like about Homes for our Troops is it goes one better, to truly cut through all the red tape, and can design a home from scratch to fit the needs of those who are looking for life more abundant,” Barrow said. “Think of it as ‘Extreme Makeover’ for Heroes.”
After the remarks, the crowd regrouped around the flag pole in front of Millican’s wide new front door. The color guard brought down the Homes for Our Troops banner that had flown there and replaced it with the U.S. flag.
Children from the Boys & Girls Clubs of Bulloch County held up welcome signs they had made. And the Patriot Guard Riders presented Milliken their organizational flag, which riders present were invited to sign before he displays it inside his home.
More than 100 Patriot Guard Riders from across Georgia rode their motorcycles to the ceremony, estimated their Middle Georgia ride captain, David Blanton of Gray. They formed a flag line as well as providing a motorcade escort, interspersed with Bulloch County Sheriff’s Office cars.
A majority of, but not all, Patriot Guard Riders are veterans. They are best known for attending funerals to honor fallen members of the military.
“It’s great to come to a feel-good mission instead of a funeral for a change,” Blanton said.