When Andrew Walker signed up for the Minnesota Air National Guard in 2006, he could not have imagined what lay ahead. After 90 combat missions and 13 military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, Staff Sergeant Walker returned home, decorated with a Purple Heart, Bronze Star, an Army Commendation Medal, and an Air Force Combat Action Badge for removing 3,500 pounds of explosives from the battlefield as an explosive ordnance disposal technician. His years of military service took a heavy toll: He suffered a traumatic brain injury as the result of an IED explosion. Re-entry into civilian life would prove challenging for him and his soon-to-be-wife, Megan.
Enter Operation FINALLY HOME and the PulteGroup, one of the nation’s largest homebuilders. In 2012, according to Division President Graham Epperson, “we began to look for an opportunity to give back, and the best way was to do what we do best.” In 2013, they officially launched the Built-to-Honor program, donating mortgage-free homes to wounded veterans and their families. More than 30 new homes have been built for the program nationwide, due in large part to the support of suppliers, construction trade partners, and community members who donate time and materials, supporting PulteGroup’s mission to “make lives better.” The Walkers, living in a one bedroom apartment, were urged to submit an application by Andrew’s recovery care coordinator at the Wounded Warrior program: “You have to apply,” Andrew recalls him saying. “They are looking for someone like you.” Through a lengthy interview process, the Walkers were chosen, although it was kept a secret until they showed up at the site last April. “We were completely oblivious, we didn’t have a clue,” Andrew says. Megan adds, “We thought it was just for another interview.”
Immediately following the groundbreaking, a backhoe finished digging the basement while the Walkers met with a professional designer: “Colors and layout were all we knew,” Megan says. Yet the designer worked to incorporate things the couple felt were important. The rest of the team was already in full swing with a self-imposed deadline: “We wanted to make sure it was done so they could have a 4th of July celebration,” Epperson says.
Considering the single story floor plan called for close to 5,000 square feet, there wasn’t a moment to lose. When the home reached the point of pre-drywall inspection, Operation FINALLY HOME invited neighbors and those working on the home to write words of inspiration on the framing prior to completion of the drywall, a tradition called Notes of Love. “It is so special knowing where all of those notes are written,” Megan says.
Just 68 days after construction began, the Walkers moved into their fully furnished residence, and it truly felt like coming home. “I was in shock. I didn’t know what to say,” Megan says.
All of the details had been taken care of for them. Each room was fully-furnished and decorated, including a few patriotic accessories. The designers had requested copies of wedding and military photos, which were framed and placed throughout the home. The flex room was complete with a keyboard for Megan. A deck with grill and whole house speaker system are Andrew’s favorite features: “I’ve always wanted built -in speakers. And I’m the grill guy. Meg likes it because she doesn’t have to cook as much,” Andrew says.
The front foyer opens to a large, sunlight drenched living room. The dual sofa seating works well for entertaining: “We absolutely love how spacious it is. We love our family, we love having friends over. We had 17 people over the first night and we could all be together,” Andrew says.
The kitchen is the heart of the Walkers’ home. Sleek granite countertops, stainless steel appliances, under counter lighting, espresso stained cabinets, durable hardwood/laminate flooring, and a convenient center island serve as both conversation and food prep area.
Just off the kitchen are two features which help streamline the household; a combination mudroom/laundry room provides a seamless transition from work to home and an out-of-the way space for Kuzco, the Walker’s chocolate lab puppy. The second is a mini office to organize bills or write out a grocery list. “We can come in and throw stuff down. It keeps the center island clutter free,” Megan says.
The kitchen, living, and dining areas are set apart from the master and guest rooms. The master bedroom suite has blackout shades and an attached master bath, with a door-free, walk-in shower equipped with hand rails. “I had foot and shoulder surgery, and my foot is kind of finicky sometimes. Really thoughtful stuff I wouldn’t necessarily have thought of,” Andrew says.
The lower level adds another bedroom, bath, reading area, craft nook, game room, and enough seating for their extended family. “My mom gave her blessing for us to host Christmas this year,” Andrew says.
The home’s soothing color palette of blue, green, beige, and taupe was no accident. These are the colors the couple selected for their wedding registry in 2013. “They (the designers) scoured Meg’s Pinterest,” Andrew says. “The colors we got for our wedding were all here in our new home.” Megan says.
As the couple settles into life in their new home, Andrew continues his work at the BNSF Railroad, while Megan is a substitute teacher in the Robbinsdale school district. They have volunteered more than 4,000 hours to serving youth, and with degrees in Youth Development and Education, they plan to continue this work in the future; particularly since Operation FINALLY HOME and PulteGroup has relieved them of the burden of a mortgage.
The Walkers appear at once perplexed and overwhelmed by the generosity and support the entire process provided. Yet Epperson, and others participating in the project, feel they were the beneficiaries: “Staff Sergeant Walker so selflessly sacrificed to protect our way of life, and we were blessed to have the opportunity to impact his,” Epperson says.
According to Andrew, the house has fast forwarded their lives ten years and has been a huge blessing. “Essentially, it enables Megan and me to do all the things we want to do. Raise a family--Meg can stay home when we have kids. They made the dream possible,” Andrew says.
Other Homes For Vets
By Pultegroup & Operation FINALLY HOME
PulteGroup’s San Antonio division and local contractors partnered with Operation FINALLY HOME and H-E-B to build and donate a new home, which was fully furnished and stocked with food and home supplies, for the Baggett family of San Antonio, Texas.
Army Captain Jeremy Baggett, a Purple Heart recipient, was serving in Iraq in 2003 when he was severely wounded by an IED. Despite his injuries and daily struggles, he has continued to serve as an officer, making a difference in the lives of other soldiers through the Continuation on Active Duty program. Captain Baggett is credited for saving the life of his battalion commander during an ambush and has received many other military commendations.
The below image depicts the ceremony called Notes of Love, where PulteGroup employees, trade partners, and other members of the community come together and write messages to the family before the drywall goes up. The family comes in for their pre-drywall walk-through and is able to read what everyone has written. The idea is that even after the drywall goes up and covers the notes, the family knows they’re always surrounded by love. This photo is from the family home of Master Sgt. Mario Pinilla near Tampa, Fla.
Operation FINALLY HOME is a national organization with a network of experienced builders, suppliers, and supporters dedicated to building homes for wounded, ill or injured veterans, surviving spouses and their families. Network members build custom, mortgage-free homes for America’s military heroes to help them move forward with their lives. Since 2005 they have worked on 151 homes in 29 states.
(Photo courtesy of pultegroup)