Thursday, December 11, 2008

Army veteran presented with new home

During his decade in the Army — more than a year of it spent in Iraq — Army Staff Sgt. Rene Fernandez built a sterling military record. The Baytown soldier led more than 300 combat missions, trained in excess of 33,000 troops. For his diligence, he amassed a bulging duffel bag of honors.

In or out of the military, Fernandez's future seemed golden.

Then in April 2004, Fernandez's Humvee detonated a roadside bomb. The officer's body absorbed most of the blast, leaving him with brain injuries that, though not fatal, ensured a life of diminished ability and pain.

Thursday morning, Lake Houston-area residents showed Fernandez their appreciation.

As packed snow glistened on nearby housetops, scores of bundled, flag-waving, cheering neighbors lined the streets of Lakeshore Subdivision to pay tribute. Then, in a ceremony highlighted by testimonials to Fernandez's valor, former President George H.W. Bush handed the former Army officer the keys to a new two-story, four-bedroom home.

The house was provided by Helping a Hero, a Houston-based organization that helps veterans. The house, the ninth awarded to seriously injured vets, was built through the cooperation of Perry Homes and dozens of donors.

Northshore Rotarians gave $100,000, said Meredith Iler, chairwoman of the home program, and students, parents and staff at Galena Park ISD contributed $18,500.

Bush, standing in a room packed elbow-to-elbow with business and political leaders, called Fernandez "a true hero."

"He has given distinguished service to his country, just remarkable service," Bush said.

As Fernandez's wife, Barbara, and the couple's children, Trenton, 15, Matteo, 9, Madeline,7, and Elijah, 3, marched center stage, Bush handed the retired officer the house key.

Then, as cameras clicked, the ex-president handed over the key a second time. Then, in the "official" photo, the key was again passed as the lineup of dignitaries in the picture switched.

Then, in a wry aside, Bush inquired, "Which 'official' door does it open?"

Bush apologized for the absence of his wife, Barbara, who had been expected to attend, noting her recent surgery for a perforated ulcer. The former first lady is recuperating at home, Bush told his audience.

A wall in the family room in which the ceremony took place was dominated by framed displays of Fernandez's military honors. Among them were two Purple Heart medals and medals for Army achievement and commendation.

"We couldn't give a house away without calling 'Mattress Mac'," Iler told the group, alluding to Jim "Mattress Mac" McIngvale, owner of Gallery Furniture. "He has agreed to give not just a mattress, but a whole house full of furniture. The van is waiting out front."

After the ceremony, Fernandez, 33, expressed his gratitude to his benefactors.

"The house is amazing," he said. Currently, the family resides in a smaller ranch style house in Baytown. Fernandez said his family would begin moving Thursday evening.

Fernandez's injuries left him with little short-term memory, intense pain and weakness and occasional numbness on the right side.

"I try to not to think about what I can't do, but what I can do," he said.

Fernandez said he has enrolled in Lee College, where he is taking classes that will prepare him for a teaching career.

"I want to teach geography and coach football, baseball and soccer," he said. "Everybody remembers a teacher."

Iler said the Helping a Hero home program has selected seven more recipients for homes. The next presentation, scheduled for next week, will provide a home for Army Spc. Sergio Trejo, who was injured in Iraq.

Recipients of the houses are picked by a national committee, she said. "We normally go in with $100,000 in in-kind services and $100,000 in donations," Iler said. Typically, the remaining $50,000 in costs is covered in a mortgage obtained by the new homeowner.

"It's very affordable," she said, "and it lets him be the man of the house."

Home recipients sign agreements that they will not sell the home for 10 years; after that time, they are fully vested in the property.

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