On Feb. 22, 2007, United States Army Staff Sgt. Rico Roman was on a convoy mission in Iraq when his Humvee was hit by an improvised explosive device. After extensive surgery and three months in a hospital bed, he made the decision to have his left leg amputated.
Over the past decade, simple household tasks have proved to be a struggle from a wheelchair or crutches. And in the past two years alone, Roman has moved to a different home seven times.
But Wednesday morning, Roman, his wife, Ela, and his two children broke ground on their forever home – one that will allow him to be mobile and autonomous.
“Veterans, we want to be independent, and I hate to ask for help, I hate to ask for things. Being able to have a home like this is such an amazing gift,” Roman said before a crowd gathered at the rural, sloping plot of land east of Hockinson. “It’s truly an honor to be here and to be part of such an amazing program.”
The home is being paid for by the Gary Sinise Foundation. The foundation’s Restoring Independence Supporting Empowerment, or RISE, program builds smart houses for wounded veterans, designing them to be ADA accessible and controllable by remote – using an iPad or smartphone, Roman will be able to control the lights, temperature, music and more from anywhere in the home.
The goal of RISE, the foundation’s website states, is to “provide a safe haven for these heroes to reclaim their independence. Built from the ground up with their individual needs in mind, these homes alleviate stress on the entire family.”
The preliminary design for the home was unveiled to family, friends, builders and media at the ceremony. Upon stepping up to the podium to view the rendering and address the crowd, Roman paused and did a double take, visibly excited.
“I want to take another look at it real quick,” he joked.
Aaron Marvin of ACT Builders said the home, which is designed in what he called a “clean, crisp, Northwest” style, will be about 3,000 square feet with multiple bedrooms. The renderings show a modern, geometric facade with stone and wood finishes, giant rows of windows and a flagpole flying the American flag out front.
The details are still being hammered out, as they’re waiting to receive their building permits from Clark County, Marvin said. The focus will be on accessibility – wide hallways, double ovens, sit-down showers and other elements that will make the home easy to navigate for someone in a wheelchair.
“We want to make sure it’s a house that’s very usable, very accessible – just very comfortable,” Marvin said.
If all goes according to plan, the home should take between nine and 11 months to construct after ACT Builders receives the final permits.
“We’re really hoping they’re going to have Christmas in here next year,” Marvin said.
A decade in the making
Gary Sinise is best known as an actor for his roles in movies such as “Apollo 13” and “Forrest Gump,” when he played Lieutenant Dan. But he’s also a musician and longtime supporter of veterans’ causes.
Roman first encountered Sinise a decade ago while undergoing rehabilitation therapy for his injuries at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Washington. He remembers being heavily medicated.
“My leg wouldn’t bend, and I was getting around on a wheelchair, and I heard music. I was like, ‘Where is that music coming from?’ It sounded like they were jamming really good. So I go over there in the wheelchair, and in this auditorium Gary Sinise is playing on the guitar and rocking to a group of veterans. I was like, ‘This is really cool, that’s the guy from ‘Forrest Gump!’ ” Roman recalled. “Never in my wildest dreams would we cross paths again. I didn’t meet him. I didn’t even talk to him that day.”
Years later, Sinise called Roman to invite him to a concert in Washington, D.C. Then, he invited Roman and his wife to another concert in Colorado, when he told the couple he wanted to build them a house.
“I was blown away,” Roman said. “To get those words actually from him, I was just blown away.”
The couple were closely involved in selecting the location of their future home, said event organizer and media coordinator Chris Kuban. As a Portland native, Roman knew he wanted to end up in the area. His brother lives in Vancouver, so Clark County was a natural fit. The quiet, wholesome neighborhood felt like a positive place to raise kids, and the community is supportive of veterans, he added.
“You guys get a choice in every aspect of building this house. We ask our veterans two questions,” Kuban said. “The first question is, ‘Where would you like to live the rest of your life?’ And your family chose this location. . The second question is, ‘OK, help us design what your house is going to look like. What are the colors in the tile? What are the colors on the front of the house? What’s the material that we’re going to use?’ ”
The Gary Sinise Foundation aims to build between 10 and 12 homes as part of the RISE program every year. Roman’s marks project No. 70 since the program started.
“Tell people what we’re doing here, because we also want to help the next person on the list,” Kuban said.
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