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Making Life Accessible Again: Disabled Veterans Struggle With Mobility At Home

A charity called 'Homes for Our Troops' is building an accessible home for veteran Ryan Wilcox in upstate New York.
Sarah Harris
American Homefront
A charity called 'Homes for Our Troops' is building an accessible home for veteran Ryan Wilcox in upstate New York.

When veterans with war injuries need accessible housing, they often have few options.

Army veteran Ryan Wilcox is 29, easy going with a big sandy beard. Usually, you can't tell that he's wearing a prosthetic.

His leg was amputated below the knee because of complications from a gunshot wound he got in Iraq in 2008. Walking is hard, so most of the time he uses a wheelchair.

He says getting around in his house is like navigating an obstacle course -- one where he gets wedged in doorways a lot.

"I don't know how many times I've gone outside and bashed my knuckles on the door frame," he said. 

The bathroom also is particularly challenging.

"I have to wheel to the door and hop in," he said, "which is bad for my hips and my knee that I have on my good leg."

Iraq veteran Ryan Wilcox will be moving into a new accessible home with his fiancée Sara and their two children.
Credit Sarah Harris / American Homefront
American Homefront
Iraq veteran Ryan Wilcox will be moving into a new accessible home with his fiancée Sara and their two children.

Those logistical challenges make it hard for Wilcox to do the stuff that matters: tucking his kids in at night, doing chores without help, even fitting through the doors to go outside. That's why the national nonprofit group "Homes for Our Troops" is building Wilcox and his family a new, fully accessible house.

"The home is meant to be their forever home," said Tom Landwermeyer, Homes for Our Troops' President. "It very much is a custom home that will reduce the amount of expenditures that they have for years going forward."

The group has built more than 200 homes nationwide for disabled veterans.

Public spaces, businesses, and multi-family apartment complexes are required by law to be accessible. But private homes usually aren't. And disabled veterans looking for housing have limited options.

The VA offers grants to help them retrofit their existing homes or build a new one. But the number of available grants is tiny compared with the need.

The VA estimates that 4600 veterans have currently applied for its various adaptive housing grants. The biggest grant - called the Specially Adapted Housing (SAH) grant - caps at just over $81,000. To qualify, veterans must have sustained certain severe injuries during their service.

The VA issues only 30 SAH grants per year. And the money is doled out in stages, which means veterans have to front the initial investment of renovations or new construction.

Susan Prokop, senior associate advocacy director at Paralyzed Veterans of America, says that process can get complicated.

"It can sometimes be a bureaucratic morass when the VA has to approve the renovation, the modification, and the veteran and the contractor are waiting on the VA to come and approve it and release the funds," she said.

Homes for Our Troops tries to make that process easier by designing their meet VA specifications and applying for grants on the veteran's  behalf. The organization says its houses cost around $700,000 to build. They have 95 underway, including a home for Ryan Wilcox.

Wilcox is looking forward to living in a house that works for him.

"The kids being on the same floor as me is going to be a huge benefit," he said. "But also the simple stuff, like the doorways, the widths."

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Bob Woodruff Foundation.

Copyright 2020 North Carolina Public Radio – WUNC. To see more, visit .

Based in upstate New York, Sarah Harris reports on military and veterans issues in the area around Fort Drum. She's worked in a variety of roles at North Country Public Radio, first covering the Champlain Valley in Vermont and New York, and now covering St. Lawrence County. Sarah's work has aired nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Here & Now, and other programs. Her writing has been published in The American Prospect and Slate. She reported on cement production in Chanute, Kansas through the Middlebury Fellowship in Environmental Journalism and contributed to the award-winning NPR/Center for Public Integrity collaborative series " Poisoned Places." Sarah taught the first session of the Transom Story Workshop in fall 2011. She lives with her partner Joe, a cat named Louie, and soon, two llamas.