Two veterans who nearly lost their lives in Iraq are reclaiming their independence thanks to Tunnel to Towers Foundation.
Retired Army Sgt. 1st Class Travis Vendela and retired Army Sgt. Saul Martinez settled into new smart homes this summer that are designed to enable these heroes to live as independently as possible, according to a foundation press release.
In February 2007, Vendela was on his third deployment to Iraq when his Humvee was struck twice by explosively formed penetrators. He survived the blast but lost both legs above the knee.
Now, Vendela, his wife and three boys call the serene countryside of Utah home. After moving from the “bustle” of a big town, they’re settling into life in the rural mountains.
“The canyon destresses me. It’s serene, and I can do anything outdoorsy that I want. The people here are all super helpful,” Vendela said.
And because of the gift of a smart home, he and his family no longer have to worry about paying a mortgage.
“This house gives us financial freedom,” he said.
Coming from a military family, Vendela said the most lasting impact of his involvement with Tunnel to Towers has been the renewal of his faith in America and his deep, abiding patriotism.
“It’s been almost 14 years since my injury, and I’ve never asked for anything from any organization. Tunnel to Towers gives you everything, and they take care of you,” Vendela said.
Five years ago, Vendela was denied a VA claim for a ramp to be put in his previous house, so he reached out to the New York-based foundation but was told there was a two-year waitlist.
“I needed something immediate, so I sort of forgot about it,” he said.
“Even though the VA gives me money, there’s something about being wounded that makes you feel like you’re not providing for your family. I never told my wife that until the day we got our keys. It made her cry. . . But with those [keys], even though I lost my legs to get it, it filled that void. I feel like I actually provided something tangible for my family,” Vendela said noting that the kids tell everyone about the house.
The homes are built specifically for the needs of injured veterans with features like wider halls and doorways, special showers to accommodate wheelchairs, automatic door openers, cabinets, counters and stove tops that can be raised and lowered. It could also contain heating and air conditioning systems that can be controlled by tablets.
Now Vendela spends his time soaking in the pristine nature of rural Utah and working as an offensive coordinator football coach for a local high school. He donates his paycheck to someone on the coaching staff who, he said, needs it more.
“Now that we don’t have to pay for a house, I’m trying my best to pay it forward. Football doesn’t save my life exactly, but it gives me something to focus on and gives me purpose,” he said of the camaraderie that feels similar to a military unit.
Like Vendela, Martinez is a double amputee who recently benefited from the gift of a house from Tunnel to Towers. Martinez discovered his love for Montana during a fly-fishing trip with Warriors and Quiet Waters Foundation. He and his family now call the state home.
Martinez also said the financial security that comes with the gift of a home has relieved so much pressure.
“We can look to the future with clear minds and open hearts. . . With this type of security, it translates into more energy that I can pour into being a husband, a father, a son, a friend and giving back to our community more,” he said.
Martinez is active in his local community and is a big advocate for therapeutic activities for veterans as a way to process war trauma. To help with his own path to wellness, Martinez dabbles as an artist.
“The smart home plus being mortgage-free will help me pursue and engage more in my art because now, so much more energy and brain space is freed up thinking about how secure the future is for us,” Martinez explained.
He is involved in Team 43, an organization that highlights the importance of sports as part of the rehabilitation of wounded service members. He also serves as a scholar of the Bush Institute’s Stand-To Veteran Leadership Program. In his current role as Director of Warrior Services at Warriors and Quiet Waters, Martinez and his team work to create one-of-a-kind fishing experiences for wounded service members recovering from war trauma.
The fact that he doesn’t have to worry about his wheelchair fitting into and out of rooms adds another layer of relief to the experience.
“Accessibility to the entire property, the smart home technology that I can control from my phone – making life ‘easier’ is an understatement. This new home makes my life enjoyable. In my life, I’ve been pretty close to burning out several times; this gives me ample space to avoid that potential for a long time,” he said.
A chance encounter with Frank Siller of Tunnel to Towers helped launch Martinez and his family into their new home. At a charity event, Siller asked if Martinez and his family had a mortgage-free smart home. Then Siller told him, “You’re exactly the type of patriot we build homes for.”
Both Vendela and Martinez expressed their profound gratitude to the foundation.
“For everyone they have helped and continue to help in such incredible ways,” Martinez remarked.