Disabled veteran surprised to receive mortgage-free home in Santa Rita Ranch

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The Coffee family reacts at the Round Rock Express game Friday after learning they will receive a new home. From left are Brianna Coffee, Melanie Coffee, Justin Coffee and Ray Coffee. (Sean Shapiro Photo)

The Coffee family reacts at the Round Rock Express game Friday after learning they will receive a new home. From left are Brianna Coffee, Melanie Coffee, Justin Coffee and Ray Coffee. (Sean Shapiro Photo)

By SEAN SHAPIRO

When Clifton “Ray” Coffee and his family arrived at Dell Diamond on Aug. 15, he knew he was going to be honored before the Round Rock Express game for his military service.

But he had no idea that his family would be receiving a life-changing gift before the start of the third inning.

Under the guise of an on-screen interview with Express in-game personality Ballpark Rob about his service, Coffee and his family were presented with a mortgage-free home in Santa Rita Ranch through Operation Finally Home.

“We thought we were just here to see a ball game,” Coffee said. “We got here about 30 minutes before the game, that was all we knew. This means everything. This is huge for our family, this is unbelievable.”

Since 2005, Operation Finally Home has been working to provide homes for severely wounded and disabled service members. It’s a selective process, and the non-profit works closely with Veterans Affairs hospitals to identify the best candidates.

Coffee certainly fit the bill.

He served two tours of duty in Iraq as part of the US Marine Corps before he was injured in February 2004. Coffee’s unit was caught in a firefight with an insurgent force and he was wounded by an improvised explosive device (IED).

Even after the blast, Coffee continued to fight and lead the attack. As he continued to fight forward he was exposed to more enemy gunfire, allowing other wounded Marines to escape safely.

The battle left Coffee with a laundry list of long-term injuries, including traumatic brain injury, several cognitive disorders, memory loss, hearing loss, vision loss, and major damage to his back, ankles, and feet. He is also wheelchair bound most of the time.

Despite his injuries, Coffee never quit when he returned home to his family. He and his wife, Melanie, have three children — Brianna, Cody and Justin.

“We find it’s very important for us to select the right families for the right areas,” Operation Finally Home founder and president Dan Wallrath said. “The only thing I know how to do is build a house. So we look for families, who in spite of their injuries, are moving forward in life. They want to make a life for their family and help their community … the Coffee family just jumped out, because of his service, his family. Everything about them epitomizes who Operation Finally Home is trying to reach.”

After selecting the family and laying the groundwork, springing the surprise on the Coffee family last Friday was another well-orchestrated effort.

The Coffees were in Orlando on a family vacation and were contacted by the Express about honoring Ray at the game on Aug. 15. Operation Finally Home then contacted the Coffees and Wallrath told Mrs. Coffee that they needed to do another interview as part of the home selection process.

“We were actually a bit bummed at first, because we had to cut our vacation short,” she said. “And the kids were a little bit mad since we weren’t going to be able to do Disney (World). But Daniel said, ‘This has the opportunity to change your life, we really need you to come in for the interview. And we’ll fly you in a day early so you can get to that baseball game.’”

At the game, Coffee was honored on the field before the game and received a game-signed ball by each member of the Express. Roughly an hour later, the family was at a loss for words when members from Operation Finally Home appeared during the staged in-game interview and Ballpark Rob broke the news about the house.

The next morning, the whirlwind weekend continued when Operation Finally Home held the groundbreaking for the Coffees’ new home in Santa Rita Ranch, which is expected to be completed by early 2015.

While the unveiling at the Express game was a surprise, the groundbreaking had all the ceremonial trimmings, which was more than deserving of Coffee’s service.

In addition to many of the contractors and builders who will volunteer time and resources, U.S. Rep. John Carter, R-Round Rock, was in attendance to help with the ceremony.

“This is a great project,” Carter said. “When I heard about this I wanted to be here. These soldiers, they earned this … reading Ray’s story, you can tell he’s a fighter. Real nice guy, just met him, but a great human being.”

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