The foundation was set. One by one, sturdy wooden walls were raised to form wide hallways. Nails were hammered into place. Triangular trusses flew overhead, creating supports for a roof.
But what made this structure special were the extras: over 40 major adaptations including keyless entry, sliding windows, accessible storage, touchless faucets, and raised garden beds. What made this structure significant were touches like a digital wall panel for setting water temperature, allowing a father with no forearms to give his sons a bath. It’s all Army Staff Sergeant Matthew DeWitt wanted: to bathe his children without scalding them in the tub.
The house in Hopkinton, N.H., is the work of a local nonprofit organization called Homes for Our Troops, which has built 190 specially adapted homes for veterans across the United States. DeWitt, 38, a veteran of the Iraq war, and his family moved into theirs last November. Last month, the PBS series “This Old House” featured DeWitt in a special three-part veterans episode.
DeWitt came home from Iraq in 2003. While recovering from his injuries at Walter Reed Medical Center, he was offered a mortgage-free house by Homes for Our Troops, then a newly formed organization, based in Taunton. He said no.
He had faced down death on a dirt road in Khalidiyah as a cavalry scout: “the eyes and ears of the commander,” he said on the show. He remembered the explosion caused by a rocket-propelled grenade, and being thrown back on top of a turret. The nerve pain, the tangy metallic taste of blood inside his mouth. He remembered hearing doctors talk about “amputating them” at the field hospital outside Baghdad. He remembered going ballistic on the table before he was sedated. He remembered looking down a day later and his body shutting down completely.
DeWitt lost both arms below the elbow and sustained damage to his eardrums and face. The months after his return were a dark period. He wasn’t ready for a stable home. But almost a decade later, with a growing family to take care of, he reached out to the Homes for Our Troops organization.
For the “This Old House” episode, which premiered on May 14, the crew followed the Homes building process on the Hopkinton house and provided consultation. DeWitt talked to host Kevin O’Connor about attempting to reset his life. “It’s kind of a weird feeling,” he said. “You took over a country and liberated hundreds of thousands of people, and feel like you’re on top of the world and indestructible and the next instant you’re nothing, you’re broke, gone and you don’t know what the next step is.”
DeWitt is almost completely self-sufficient in the 2,600-square-foot property. His wife, Cat, 29, has an office in two shades of pink. Their “wild ones,” as they call their sons, 7 and 4, have a playground in the back and a large bedroom with big windows.
And the quiet soldier has a place to rest his head at the end of each day. With the press of a button, doors open automatically. Using his prosthetic arms with hooks at the ends, DeWitt can pull down retractable kitchen shelves when he’s cooking for his sons. “It’s just easier,” DeWitt said. “It’s a good program.”
According to Homes for Our Troops, thousands of veterans have returned from the front lines with life-altering injuries since the allied invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, including loss of limbs, traumatic brain injuries, and paralysis. Since 2004, the organization has been serving the most severely injured war veterans by building free homes tailored to their specific needs.
Bill Ivey, who served in the Army for 31 years, is the nonprofit’s executive director. Nearly 90 cents of every $1 the organization receives is spent on veterans. He flies in from Atlanta to Massachusetts to work every week and sleeps on an air mattress in his office.
Many veterans initially find it hard to accept help; like DeWitt, a number of those now applying for houses served between 2003 and 2006. “There’s a lot that say, ‘I’m only a double amputee; there are triple and quadruple amputees worse off than me. You should give [the house] to them,’ ” Ivey said. “Or they say, ‘I can adapt. It’s difficult, but I can overcome.’ And you see them hop on one foot or scoot on their rear. It takes a few years of falling in the bathroom and flailing on counters to realize you can make this work in your 20s, but not in your 50s and 60s.”
O’Connor, the host of “This Old House,” said that his team sees “every day the impact a house has on a family.” He added, “It just made sense that we profile this organization. It’s surprising how low-key and humble Matt was. . . . These guys went through traumatic experiences, but it hasn’t stopped them from living and moving forward.”
Homes for Our Troops works year-round. As of early June, the group had 31 homes under construction and was looking for land for another 19. The entire process takes about 18 months, with an average house costing $430,000 for land and construction.
‘The thing about Matt, and one of the things I fell in love with, is he doesn’t make his disability the focus. You forget he’s injured.’Cat DeWitt, speaking of her husband, Iraq war veteran Matt DeWitt
For DeWitt, rebuilding a life is a longer process. It has included adjusting to a life with prosthetics, visiting fellow soldiers in Georgia, learning to ride bicycles adapted for him. He has been training for the Leadville 100 MTB, a 100-mile race across the Colorado Rockies. “Cycling, for me, levels the playing field,” DeWitt said. “It keeps me in shape and it gets me out there with average people to compete and beat some. It’s good therapy, mental and physical.”
It was after his return that he met his wife. They used to drive through Concord, N.H., and imagine their dream house. Last fall, they married, a month before they moved into their new home. She’s all heart, an athlete who ran a half-marathon with a broken foot eight days before her wedding and likes to wear her socks in different colors. He has a dry wit and a practical mind, with a soft spot for the Bruins and Mexican food.
“The thing about Matt, and one of the things I fell in love with, is he doesn’t make his disability the focus,” Cat DeWitt said. “You forget he’s injured” — so much so that his mother-in-law accidentally once bought him Bruins gloves for Christmas.
On a spring morning shortly before the show airs, life has finally started to slow to a steady pace. DeWitt scoops up a little brown-haired boy wearing a T-shirt depicting a Tyrannosaurus rex on a bicycle. His younger son nestles into his father’s chest. In their old house, there was a lot to keep up. But in this new house, DeWitt can focus on cycling, caring for his kids, and sitting on the porch listening to the serenade of spring peepers after May showers. Old Glory waves over the site. Not far from the base of the flagpole, near what will be a cherry and apple orchard, Cat scrawled the family’s last name into the concrete.
“This is our house,” Cat said, still in awe. “It’s, like, wow, it’s breathtaking, and this is ours.”Cristela Guerra can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @CristelaGuerra.