Wounded warriors surprised by gift houses

It was a surprise that could change the arc of a life.

Five injured veterans and servicemen stood awkwardly with their families Saturday morning in front of a crowd at Stone Mountain Park, purportedly as part of a job fair.

A couple of the men said they sensed something fishy was going on — being flown to Atlanta to appear at a festival seemed to be too much of a dog-and-pony show to just be a job counseling session. But when the big moment came, all seemed genuinely stunned.

There on easels were pictures of five suburban residences the families soon will call home.

“Unbelievable. I could never think anything like this could happen to you,” said Army Sgt. Michael Vanscoy, still shaking his head after the announcement. Vanscoy, his wife, Khadija, and their three children will soon reside in Buford. Three of the other homes are also in Gwinnett County. The fifth is in Woodstock.

Vanscoy, a stocky 30-year-old Texas resident, has served for 10 years, including three tours in Afghanistan. He suffers from traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder, and said his back has issues “from jumping out of planes for 10 years.”

His wife said the home will give the family breathing room, allowing both to return to school. She wants to be a nurse. He’d like to be a landscape architect.

Also receiving homes Saturday were: Army Spc. Christopher White of San Antonio, Texas; Marine Sgt. Corey Bowen, an Atlanta native and father of four now living with his wife, De’Trese, in San Diego; Army Spc. Joseph Wallace, a father of three living in Alaska with his wife, Brooke; and Army Sgt. Ricardo Bailey, a Trinidad native now living in Decatur with his wife, Archagul.

The event was put together by Operation Homefront, a group that helps injured veterans and their families resettle into civilian life. So far, it has awarded more than 110 homes nationally. Another home is to be given away to a Marine this week in Lawrenceville.

The five homes given away Saturday, worth a total of about $850,000, were part of a $30 million donation by Wells Fargo to make housing available to veterans. The houses were foreclosures and have been renovated. The families must live in the homes for two years before the titles are transferred to them. They also will receive financial counseling during that time.

“It’s our way of giving back to the veterans and it helps stabilize some of the communities hit hardest” by the foreclosure crisis, said Tyler Smith, a Wells Fargo vice president.

White said he was medically retired in March and is still determining what he wants to do with his life. The 12-year vet, who served two tours in Iraq, grew up in New Hampshire and Columbus. He attended the ceremony with his wife, Stephanie, and daughter, Ava.

He said a mortgage-free home certainly will open some doors.

“It gives you the freedom to pursue what you want to do, something you’re passionate about, rather than just go out and get any job you can to pay the mortgage,” he said.

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