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Associated Press: For wounded Iraq war veteran, new, accessible home in Fort Worth is "a blessing"

November 29, 2010
Article

By Angela K. Brown

 FORT WORTH – Marine Cpl. Zach Briseno jokes that he's taller since returning from Iraq – although he's most grateful that the prosthetic legs that add several inches to his height allow him to chase after his 5-year-old son.

Marine Cpl. Zach Briseno embraced Rep. Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth, before a groundbreaking Monday in Fort Worth for a home being built for him by a Houston nonprofit. The home will have wider doors, lower counters and a special shower.

Although he'd never complain, it has taken time for Briseno to get used to life after losing his legs in an explosion, and it's not easy for him to move around his apartment in his wheelchair. That's why a nonprofit organization is providing him with a home that will have wider doors, lower counters, a special shower and other safety features.

"It's truly a blessing for me and my family," Briseno said this week as relatives and friends surrounded him on the lot where the home is to be built by next spring.

HelpingaHero.org, a Houston-based nonprofit, has provided nearly two dozen new homes for veterans severely wounded in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Each project is a partnership with a developer and builder and supported by individual donations from the community, said Meredith Iler, the organization's chairwoman.

The homes worth an average of $250,000 may seem expensive, but they are in communities that provide stability and amenities needed by wounded veterans, Iler said. Those who receive a home are responsible for $50,000 of the mortgage and must agree to live there at least a decade because their role as the family provider is important, Iler said.

"We know that placing them in these homes restores their sense of independence," she said. "But the hardest thing is getting them to finish the application because they don't want to take up a spot for someone worse off than they are."

Briseno, 25, will not have to pay property taxes because a Texas law enacted in 2009 allows disabled veterans to qualify for complete exemption if the Department of Veterans Affairs determines they can't work or are receiving 100 percent disability compensation because of their military service.

Briseno had just been deployed for the second time when an explosion rocked his Humvee in 2007. He lost both legs below the knee and after surgeries was able to wear prosthetic legs, choosing ones that boosted his height from 5-feet-10 to 6-feet-2. Briseno was awarded the Purple Heart while in the hospital.

Although he was the only Marine seriously injured in that explosion, a friend who saved his life that day was killed in Afghanistan in September, he said.

"I feel bad that I'm here, getting a new house and enjoying freedom when my buddies are still over there," said Briseno, who has retired from the military and said it's been difficult to leave it behind. "It was a lifelong dream since I was 9 years old. I saw a [Marine] uniform, and that's what I wanted to be growing up."

He now takes college classes, helps his former high school baseball coach and wants to become a police officer.

Some who know Briseno say he won't let obstacles stand in the way of his goals.

"As a coach you try to make sure the kids understand important things in life like being a good citizen and a good father, and Zach is an example of that and so much more," said Castleberry High School baseball coach O.J. Holcomb, who has known Briseno since he played on the team. "He's an inspiration."