Charles Vitchers is the uncle of the author. Tracey actively volunteers with Housing Our Nation’s Outstanding Returning Soldiers as their pro-bono director of communications and public relations.
In the weeks and months after 9/11, family members of victims flooded New York City hospitals and the World Trade Center site in search of loved ones. Husbands searched for wives, sisters for brothers, and parents for children.
One father, Gordon Haberman, made six trips to New York from Wisconsin in search of his daughter, Andrea Lyn Haberman, who had traveled to New York from Chicago on September 10th to attend a business meeting at the World Trade Center the morning of 9/11. Haberman, his wife Kathleen, and other family members made the journey to New York time repeatedly over the course of seven months in search of Andrea, but each time they returned home without their daughter.
Then in April 2002 Haberman met Charlie Vitchers, the superintendent of construction for the World Trade Center recovery and clean-up project at Ground Zero. Haberman showed Vitchers a photograph of Andrea on the day of her engagement to her fiancé Al, whom she had spoken with only 45 minutes before the first plane hit the North Tower. Vitchers went into his office at the site and retrieved a heavy iron cross made from World Trade Center steel. "We will find your daughter," Vitchers remembers saying as he handed it to Haberman. "Be patient. We will find Andrea. Don’t give up hope."
On May 15, 2002, Haberman learned that Vitchers had kept his promise: seven fragments of Andrea and her purse were recovered at Ground Zero. He and his family could finally lay their daughter to rest. "We’ve been exposed to the worst," Haberman recalls telling Vitchers. "But we’ve met the best."
Vitchers and Haberman remained close friends in the years after the completion of the Ground Zero clean up project and spent many 9/11 anniversaries together honoring Andrea and the 3000 other victims who lost their lives that day. Their ongoing conversations often focused on the long-term affects of 9/11: health issues, air safety, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Vitchers, whose youngest son served in the Marines after 9/11, told Haberman he was particularly interested in the health issues facing young veterans returning from the wars in the Middle East.
Vitchers and Haberman both began to research the subject. Suitable housing, in particular, was one of the issues Vitchers and Haberman learned was a challenge for young disabled veterans: standard doorway sizes are typically not wide enough for wheelchairs; traditional kitchen appliances and cabinetry are often out of arms' reach; doorknobs are challenging to manipulate with prosthetic arms and hands; and bathrooms must have handicap-accessible showers and toilets to allow for independent bathing.
The men were surprised to learn about the lack of adaptive housing programs for disabled veterans given the fact that 45% of 1.6 million veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have sought compensation for service-related injuries.
"I kept coming across the same disabled veterans housing organizations over and over again," said Vitchers. "There just weren’t enough organizations focusing on adaptive housing based on the number of veterans that needed it. I wanted to see if I could change that."
To make matters more challenging, the men learned that stringent application requirements often prevent disabled veterans from receiving assistance from the small number of organizations that do provide adaptive home-building services.
"Our research showed that some of the disabled veteran home building organizations have rigid minimum injury requirements that disqualify many disabled veterans," Vitchers said. "Some organizations will not work with a veteran unless they are a triple amputee or quadriplegic. Of course those injuries are terrible and life changing, but how can you deny a double or single amputee assistance? Or a vet with severe brain trauma? I just don’t get that."
Additionally, Vitchers and Haberman found that few existing adaptive housing programs provide home remodeling options. The majority of the organizations focus on building a house from the ground-up rather than adapting an existing home to meet a disabled veteran’s needs.
"Building a home from scratch is far more expensive than widening door frames, installing a ramp, or remodeling a bathroom, but few organizations provide those options to disabled veterans," said Vitchers. "Most just want to build homes from the ground up. And, not every veteran wants or needs a brand new house. Many just want to be able to live comfortably in their current residence."
With their findings in mind, Vitchers and Haberman co-founded Housing Our Nation’s Outstanding Returning Soldiers (H.O.N.O.R.S.) with the mission of constructing new or remodeling and adapting existing homes to accommodate the special needs arising from injuries sustained by veterans in combat at low- or no-cost to the veterans themselves.
H.O.N.O.R.S. selected their first adaptive home recipient, Spc. Corey Garmon, in June 2013. Spc. Garmon was severely injured by an IED blast in July 2012 as his squad approached a compound in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Due to the injuries sustained during the mission both of Spc. Garmon’s legs were amputated below the knee. Spc. Garmon also lost 70% of his use in his left hand, lost his left pinky, sustained moderate damage to his eye, and was diagnosed with moderate traumatic brain injury and PTSD.
H.O.N.O.R.S. has also identified their second home recipient, Sgt. Everett "Alex" Haworth of Olmsted Township, Ohio. On April 4, 2012, Sgt. Haworth was severely injured by a suicide bomber while his patrol exited a city park in Miamana, Afghanistan in the Faryab Province. On this day three American National Guardsmen and fifteen Afghans lost their lives. Sgt. Haworth received a severely broken leg, a broken arm, hearing loss, nerve damage, traumatic brain injury (TBI), multiple shrapnel wounds, and an assortment of other injuries.
The organization looks forward to accepting more applications and increasing awareness for disabled veterans and their unique housing needs in the coming months.
"H.O.N.O.R.S. is committed to helping as many disabled veterans as we can," said Vitchers. "There is no job too big or too small for H.O.N.O.R.S. to take on. We want veterans to know that we’ve got their back."