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  • HECTOR AMEZCUA / hamezcua@sacbee.com

    Andrew Martinez, his wife, Maria Perez-Martinez, and their dog Rocco check out their new home in Galt on Friday. The bank-owned house will belong to Martinez mortgage-free if he completes a three-year program of financial mentoring.

  • HECTOR AMEZCUA / hamezcua@sacbee.com

    Andrew Martinez flies the Stars and Stripes.

  • HECTOR AMEZCUA / hamezcua@sacbee.com

    Andrew Martinez and his wife, Maria Perez-Martinez, tour their new home in Galt with their dog Rocco. The couple are moving to the home from their Oakland apartment today as part of a program for wounded veterans sponsored by the Military Warriors Support Foundation. "It almost seems too good to be true," said Martinez.

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Injured soldier gets free house in Galt through new program for vets

Published: Saturday, Dec. 10, 2011 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Monday, Feb. 20, 2012 - 2:41 pm

Andrew Martinez returned from Iraq in 2009 with legs shredded by shrapnel, a mind tortured by combat stress and a marriage under strain.

He and his wife, Maria, had long dreamed of owning their own home. But given the financial and emotional burdens of readjusting to life after war, that goal seemed far away.

"That was a real low point in my life," said Martinez, 27, who grew up in the Bay Area.

Similar stories are playing out across the country as veterans return from Iraq and Afghanistan with psychological and physical wounds. Younger vets may never have lived on their own prior to enlisting in the military, much less managed a mortgage. Disability payments may be their only income, and their job prospects limited.

"They are coming back without financial skills and other skills to manage their situation," said Casey Kinser of the Military Warriors Support Foundation, a nonprofit group dedicated to helping wounded veterans gain their emotional and financial footing after their deployment.

"With everything they have going on, home ownership is not on their radar."

A new program sponsored by the nonprofit group and some of the same banks blamed for the nationwide mortgage crisis aims to help. Through the program, thousands of wounded veterans will get the keys to their own homes plus financial and family counseling designed to keep them grounded.

Martinez and his wife are among the beneficiaries. Today they will move from their Oakland apartment into a mortgage-free, three-bedroom home in Galt.

"It almost seems too good to be true," said Martinez as he toured his new home Friday with Maria and Rocco, a dog who is playing a role in his emotional recovery.

The program, known as Homes 4 Wounded Heroes, has a bittersweet side.

Many of the homes that veterans like Martinez are acquiring for free are symbols of a crisis that forced thousands of people into foreclosure. Since 2007, roughly 67,500 homeowners, or 8.5 percent of the households in the four-county Sacramento region, have lost their homes through that process.

Chase, the bank that donated the Galt home chosen by the Martinezes, is one of several financial institutions taking part in the program. A spokeswoman said the bank is happy to turn homes that in some cases symbolize a dark time in American history into something positive.

"These are houses in our inventory, and we plan to donate 1,000 of them in the next five years to these heroes," said Chase spokeswoman Eileen Leveckis. "We are going to put them to good use."

The Homes 4 Wounded Heroes program launched last year, and since then nearly 100 homes have been awarded, Kinser said. Eligible veterans applying for the program must have suffered combat-related injuries, can no longer be serving in the military and cannot own another home.

After three years, if they maintain regular contact with financial and family mentors, the program turns over the home's mortgage-free deed to them.

"This is an opportunity for these families to establish a strong, stable foundation," said Kinser. "We do not want to just hand over the keys and walk away."

Martinez said he is happy to comply with the rules. "The mentoring makes a lot of sense for people like me," he said.

Martinez, whose father and grandfather were military men, entered the Army in 2007 with hopes of learning skills that later would allow him to get a job as a civilian police officer. He was deployed to Iraq in 2008, and worked mostly with civilians, doing humanitarian work that included building schools.

On May 21, 2009, a suicide bomber detonated a blast in a market outside Baghdad where Martinez and his comrades were working. He suffered shrapnel wounds to his legs, and later received a medical discharge from the military.

When he came home to Oakland, his wife hardly recognized him. His temper flared. He was afraid to go to sleep. A piece of garbage in the street put him on high alert for a possible bomb.

"It was so obvious that the war had changed him," said Maria Perez-Martinez. "He was not the same man that I married."

Martinez was reluctant to get help at first, he acknowledged. On the battlefield, "you don't want to appear weak," he said. "The enemy senses your weakness."

The couple separated, and for awhile Martinez leaned mostly on his therapy dog, Cookie, "to give me comfort and calm me down," he said.

"She would sit and put her head in my lap, and I could forget about everything for awhile."

Counseling has helped restore his emotional health and marriage. The Martinezes have since acquired Rocco, a well-behaved pit bull.

These days, Martinez spends much of his time exercising and undergoing therapy. He still has hopes of becoming a police officer.

As they made their way through their new home Friday, he and his wife began to envision a new life.

Their Galt neighborhood felt quieter, more pastoral, than the one they are leaving in Oakland, they said. An American flag fluttered out front. The backyard would be perfect for the dogs. Martinez picked a room to put his computer, his Xbox and his 60-inch TV.

"I love it," said Martinez, his shoes sinking into plush carpet in the family room. "I like everything about it."

Martinez still takes medications for the pain in his legs, the migraines, the anxiety. He has trouble sleeping, standing for extended periods and walking long distances. But he senses that his life is about to get much better.

"It already has," he said with a smile. "It feels good."

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Cynthia Hubert



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