That’s when the phone call came: The Military Warriors Support Foundation (MWSF) was on the line to tell the Frances they were being given, mortgage-free, a five-bedroom house in Brentwood.
“He was speechless and I was crying,” Shannon recalled. “I kept thinking, ‘I’m not going to be homeless!’”
The family, including Jon, 15; Destiny, 9; Erreanna, 8; Arhvia, 6; and Micah, 5, moved into the six-year-old house the day before Thanksgiving.
“It’s beautiful; amazing,” said Ricky this week. “I’m still amazed and shocked.”
Founded in 2007 by retired Gen. Leroy Sisco, the MWSF provides a variety of services aimed at helping veterans transition from the military to civilian life. In March of 2010 the organization embarked on its most ambitious effort, to give 1,000 wounded veterans free houses to within five years.
“One of our biggest hurdles is convincing people that it’s real,” said Casey Kinser, program director for MWSF. “Everyone thinks, ‘Surely they’re not giving away a free home.’ We are, and we want a lot more people to know.”
The house was donated to the foundation by J.P. Morgan Chase. Lisa Wolfe, communications director for Military and Veteran Affairs at Chase, said the gift was part of a three-part effort to assist veterans. Support is provided for finding jobs, increasing education and home ownership. About 70 houses have been donated through the MWSF so far, she said, averaging $150,000 to $200,000 each.
“These are deserving veterans,” Wolfe said. “We feel we have to recognize what these people have given to protect us.”
The program is open to wounded veterans of Iraq or Afghanistan who have left the military and who do not currently have a mortgage, Kinser said. Applicants are matched with houses located where the veteran has the best prospects for a successful transition, considering nearby employment opportunities, nearby support services and the location of family and friends. A Purple Heart medal for being wounded is not essential, she said, but strongly preferred.
For the former Sgt. Ricky France, the Purple Heart was not an issue. A mechanic with the Army’s 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, France was part of the first Army unit into Iraq in 2003, right behind the Marines. He had served from 1990 to 1996, left the Army, and then re-enlisted following the 9/11 attacks.
On Sept. 10, 2003, his unit was ordered on a re-supply convoy to a forward operating base outside Fallujah, with France behind the wheel of one of the trucks. Tactics were still evolving in those early days of the war, and France’s truck had not yet been up-armored against the improvised explosive devices increasingly employed by the enemy.
France’s face tenses as he describes his commander’s orders to send the convoy on a route that had not yet been swept by scouts. He added a fourth sandbag to the floor of his truck. The convoy departed, made its delivery, and was just 15 minutes from returning to base when a string of seven bombs detonated around him.
“I saw the puffs of smoke, and then whoosh,” he said, moving his hands and body as though being struck by a giant ocean wave. He had to be pried from the riddled wreckage of his truck, his body peppered with wounds and his knees severely hyperextended in the blast. He did not want to discuss others caught in the attack, other than to say he wasn’t the only one hurt.
“No way I should have lived,” he said. “At the hospital, they told me I wasn’t going to walk again, but four days later I threw the crutches away and got up.” In addition to scars on his legs, arms torso and face, he came home with another reminder of just how close he had come to his end.
“I saved a piece of shrapnel about that long,” he said, holding his hands about a foot apart. It had come through the floor of the truck, through three of the sandbags, and protruded 6 inches from the fourth, pointed right at his head.
After a 30-day rehabilitation, France returned to his unit. Out of patriotism and desire to care for his family, he also “did the unthinkable – I re-enlisted for six years.”
Those years ended in April of 2010, and he mustered out of the service despite his desire to stay in. Despite the pain that wracked his body and the onset of post-traumatic stress syndrome that made performing his duty difficult, he wanted to continue in a career where he possessed proven leadership and training skills (he has a pocket full of awards for his shooting prowess). “It was easier to stay in, where I knew what had to be done, than it was to get out and not know what to do.”
Unable to find work, France and his family have been drawing $1,800 unemployment since leaving the service. He hopes to get a job with another federal agency, perhaps TSA, so he can add to his current 15 years of service and retire at 20 years. Returning to mechanics, he said, is not an option.
“My body can’t do that any more,” he said. He greatly appreciates what the Army has done for him, he said – with the exception of a particular commander. Returning to civilian life, he said, has been “worse than I expected. I haven’t felt like I was the provider.” At times he feels “completely lost” and finds it hard to motivate himself.
The gift from MWSF includes three years’ financial counseling and monthly visits from a homeowner mentor to help keep the new house ship-shape. At the end of the three-year mentoring period, the house will belong to the France family, free and clear.
The family now has secure shelter, but the future still holds uncertainties. In addition to utilities, the property taxes must still be paid. The house had all-new appliances – “I flipped out when I saw brand-new, front-loading washer and drier!” Shannon said – but the worn furniture from their former 1,300-square-foot house leaves their new, 3,000-square-foot digs mostly empty, and it could be a while until enough is saved to fill it up.
“That TV right there took me 10 years to get,” said Ricky, gesturing toward a 48-inch flat-screen TV.
Born in Antioch and raised in Concord, Ricky is familiar with the area and glad his new house is closer to the Martinez Veterans Hospital, where he receives treatment. This week, as children bounced noisily and happily about the house and prepared to start their new schools this week, Ricky and Shannon spoke of their gratitude to MWSF and Chase.
“They are a godsend; absolutely amazing,” Ricky said. “We’re just thankful there are people and companies like them in this world. They do it for soldiers and their families, not for publicity. They are just here to help.”
On Thanksgiving, Shannon said, the family spent its second day in the new house, but was still short of cash. “We were sitting here getting hungry about 3 p.m. and I remembered I had a gift card from Raley’s in Loomis for a turkey dinner,” she said. “Ricky went to the Lucky’s here to see if they would take it, and he came back with a turkey, vegetables – everything,” she said. “It worked out just like we’d planned a Thanksgiving dinner all along.
“The whole day,” she said, “was just another miracle from God.”
For more information or to offer assistance to the France family, e-mail Rick Lemyre at email@example.com.
To learn more about the Military Warriors Support Foundation's programs and sponsors, log on to www.militarywarriors.org.