Building a House to Rebuild a Veteran's Life
TOH works with Homes for Our Troops to construct a new home for Matt DeWitt and his young family
The TOH TV crew stands proudly with Cat and Matt DeWitt and their sons, Reed (in dark jacket), and Levi (in bright blue).
Severely wounded veterans returning from war face a world of challenges, perhaps none so frustrating as physical hurdles in their own houses. For those who have lost limbs, the floor plan and features of their homes often present a daily battleground—simple tasks like grabbing a can of soup off a cabinet shelf are almost impossible. But it doesn't have to be that way.
For the final three episodes of the 35th season of This Old House TV, the crew partnered with a national organization called Homes for Our Troops (HFOT) to build a specially adapted house in Hopkinton, New Hampshire, for retired U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Matt DeWitt, his wife, Cat, and their two young sons. TOH general contractor Tom Silva and the crew pitched in with KRD Builders, of Amherst, N.H., on the construction of the 2,650-square-foot single-level house donated by HFOT. "With the service Matt gave to his country, it's the least we can do," says Tom.
HFOT, a privately funded nonprofit based in Taunton, Massachusetts, takes applications from severely injured service members in need of a home, then purchases land, hires a contractor, and gets the community involved to make the dream a reality. Each year the outfit builds 32 mortgage-free houses, all of them designed to accommodate the wide range of needs of wounded and disabled veterans, some of whom are in wheelchairs, many of whom are missing limbs.
Matt's combat injuries, sustained when a rocket-propelled grenade hit his patrol in Iraq in 2003, left him with both arms amputated below the elbow. With the use of prosthetic hooks, he can grasp objects, but even that ability hits limitations in a conventional house—for example, turning a key in a lock to get in the front door. "I can eventually make it work, but it takes the frustration level up so many notches that other things start going wrong," he says. He has spent years coping with the physical challenges presented by conventional houses.
Then Matt and Cat found out about HFOT. They selected the program's standard four-bedroom floor plan, which, like the other options, features an open layout with the wide hallways and doorways crucial for wheelchair-using veterans, as well as many design elements that address Matt's particular needs. For example, the exterior doors open automatically by push button, the windows slide easily side-to-side, and the bathtub faucets display the water temperature, which enables Matt to not worry about scalding his sons while giving them a bath—a chore he treasures.
To build the house, general contractor Ken Dionne, of KRD Builders, welcomed help from Tom, TOH host Kevin O'Connor, and TOH master carpenter Norm Abram to frame, sheathe, and erect the house's exterior walls early in the project, while TOH plumbing contractor Richard Trethewey researched ADA-approved modifications, like touchless faucets and toilets. See Volunteers and TOH TV Team up for The Veteran's Special House Project for more on the crew's work with volunteers on the home's construction.
In addition, Norm and Kevin worked with Matt to build a rustic-style dining room table, where his family could gather every day. "Matt and Cat told us they wanted a table large enough to host big family gatherings and casual enough for everyday use," says Norm. So the three men set up shop in the DeWitt garage and built the table out of salvaged oak boards, with Matt doing everything from helping glue up the planks for the table top to sanding the pieces. Norm's idea for getting the table to expand for larger family gatherings was to build an extension attached by a couple of table locks underneath. It turned out to be Norm's favorite part. "After everyone had gone and the hubbub had died down, we still needed to finish the extension," recalls Norm. "So Matt and I headed to the garage and got it done. I really enjoyed that personal time with him, and I realized he can do anything he puts his mind to."
Although not part of the standard HFOT plans, the DeWitts added a greenhouse, for business and pleasure. Matt is an avid gardener and had been successful at raising vegetables at his previous house, although there was only room to grow enough for the family. The new house sits on six acres. "In the future, I'd like to start a farm stand and turn it into a business, and now with the greenhouse I can do it much more easily," Matt says. He credits TOH landscape contractor Roger Cook with advising him on the site planning. "Roger also helped do all the beds in the greenhouse," says Matt. "Now it's just a matter of the learning curve for me, regarding the heat and water in the greenhouse." So far he's planted tomatoes, peppers, parsley, chives, and beets.
As for the house itself, Matt can't believe the difference it's made in his daily life. "It's amazing how much easier it is to do everything," he says, pausing to reflect. "You know what—why isn't every house like this?"