Pennsylvania Vet Receives Brotherly Love

By John J. Kruzel
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Jan. 3, 2007 – After Army Sgt. Pisey Tan was wounded in Iraq, he depended on others to do wash his clothes and perform his other household tasks. Now, thanks to a member organization of the Defense Department’s “America Supports You” program, chores that once were menial duty are now a measure of personal freedom.
America Supports You spotlights and facilitates support among private citizens and the nation’s corporate sector for the men and women serving in the nation’s armed forces.

“Homes for Our Troops,” teaming with Philadelphia-based homebuilder The McKee Group, designed and donated a handicapped-accessible home to Tan on Dec. 14.

“I feel like I’ve got my independence back,” Tan said. “I never thought that I would miss doing my laundry, but it feels great to do my own laundry again.”

Tan, attached to the 3rd Battalion, 69th Armored Regiment, was patrolling Samarra, Iraq on Aug. 6, 2004, when an improvised explosive device detonated under the Bradley fighting vehicle he was driving.

“When I made a U-turn, I thought an IED exploded in front of me,” Tan said, “but I didn’t realize it had (actually exploded) underneath me.

“I tried stepping on the accelerator, and I could feel me moving my legs, but I didn’t know that my legs were blown off,” Tan said. “I looked down at the floorplate of the Bradley and I saw a puddle of my own blood down there.

“The only thing that was holding my legs together was the seams of my pants; that was it,” Tan said. “When I woke up at the hospital, I just broke down in tears, thinking, ‘My whole entire life is ruined.’”

Tan eventually was fitted with computerized prosthetic legs, and underwent rehabilitation at Walter Reed Army Medical Center here.

John Gonsalves, founder of the Taunton Mass.-based Homes for Our Troops, and members of The McKee Group, told Tan while he was recuperating at Walter Reed that he would receive a handicapped-accessible home.

“He was kind of in disbelief,” Gonsalves said. “He never imagined anything like this could happen.”

Gonsalves was inspired to start Homes for Our Troops when he saw a story like Tan’s on the evening news.

“I was watching (an) interview with some soldiers who had come back from Iraq, and they were talking about their convoy that was attacked,” Gonsalves said. “One of their buddies was driving a Humvee that got hit with (a rocket-propelled grenade), and when they stopped the convoy to get out and check on him, it was an ambush.

“All they cared about was if their buddy was OK,” Gonsalves continued. “When they got him out, they realized that he had lost both his legs in the attack, and that’s really what got me to start thinking, ‘How can I help in some way?’”

When The McKee Group asked Homes for Our Troops to locate a soldier in the Philadelphia area in need of a handicapped-accessible home, they found Tan, a native of Olney, Pennsylvania.

For Tan, who was unaware that programs designed to support wounded U.S. servicemembers existed, the gift was unbelievable.

“I thought it was a joke or something,” Tan said. “I was very excited; it was an emotional rollercoaster.”

In fact, it took time to convince Tan.

“I don’t think he really believed us,” Jennifer McKee, The McKee Group’s communications director, said. “We had a regular lunch appointment with him every week just to make sure he knew this was really happening.”

The McKee Group took Tan’s needs into account when designing the Ridley Township, Pa., home. In addition to the fully stocked refrigerator and furnished living quarters, the homebuilders made the house’s interior completely wheelchair accessible, to increase Tan’s mobility when not using his prostheses.

“I’m loving it,” said Tan, who is now living in his new home. “The main thing is that I’m able to move around with my wheelchair. Plus everything that I need is right here downstairs; I don’t even need to go upstairs.”

The McKee Group raised enough money to reimburse Homes for Our Troops for the $60,000 cost of the lot, plus an extra $10,000 for the organization’s future projects.

“(The McKee Group) got everything done, and we got $10,000 more than we put into it,” Gonsalves said. “I never thought that we would go into any project and raise more money by the builder helping us than what we put into it.”

The McKee Group is developing a how-to book to help guide other homebuilders who are interested in providing homes to disabled veterans like Tan.

“We really believe that the men and women fighting in our armed forces are giving so much for our country and our freedom, and that it’s everybody’s job to make sure that they’re taken care of,” McKee said.

“As a company, we never could have given what Pisey (Tan) did, but we can at least try to make life a little bit easier for him,” McKee said. “We can make sure he knows that this country supports him, and we’ll try to be there for him.”

Tan said the commitment of organizations like Homes for Our Troops and The McKee Group “is truly a blessing.”

Tan recalled having conversations in Iraq with his gunner, former Sgt. Timothy J. Brophy, about the level of public support for deployed troops.

“We would wonder if there are even people out there thinking of us,” Tan said.

“As time went on, I was introduced to a lot of the programs and to a lot of support,” Tan said. “And it basically showed me that life can go on.”