Veteran’s family finds new home in Santa Rita Ranch

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David DeTuccio said they will wait for their oldest daughter to finish high school in Nebraska this year before beginning the transition to Liberty Hill. (Waylon Cunningham Photo)

By WAYLON CUNNINGHAM

It was halftime for the UT vs. West Virginia football game, on Veterans Day weekend, when the announcer invited David DeTuccio and 12 other veterans to step onto the field with their families. This much DeTuccio had been told to anticipate. He is, after all, a Purple Heart recipient from the US Army’s Special Operations.

Under the stadium lights, before thousands of fans and dozens of cameras, he smiled and waved. But for all that DeTuccio had instructed his children on staying composed, nothing could have prepared him for what came next.

The announcer on the field told the crowd that DeTuccio was receiving a mortgage-free home in Santa Rita Ranch in Liberty Hill. The look of shock on his family’s faces were completely real.

“That moment was, it was completely crazy,” he said.

In the stadium hallways afterwards, many shook his hand in congratulations. Laughing, DeTuccio remembered one lady hugged him.

“She said, ‘you don’t know who I am, but I know who you are!’”

The surprise came thanks to Operation Finally Home, a non-profit organization partnering with builders, sponsors and volunteers to provide eligible veterans with homes custom built to their unique needs.

Last Friday was the groundbreaking ceremony for DeTuccio’s home in Liberty Hill. A crowd, numbering near 100, spilled out from the building site and onto the street, which had been blocked off. Among them were firefighters, police, politicians, builders, and soon-to-be-neighbors. A motorcycle procession of leather-clad veterans roared by waving American flags.

In front of a large pile of dirt lined with shovels, Santa Rita Ranch owner Ed Horne said to the crowd, “this is a celebration of what men and women do to pay a sacrifice for this country. This is a way to honor them.”

Liberty Hill Mayor Connie Fuller took to the podium, soon joined by Georgetown Mayor Dale Ross and County Commissioner Cynthia Long in welcoming the family to the area.

“We’ve got a lot going on, and we want you to see it,” Fuller said before giving the family a heart-shaped rock commemorating the ceremony.

Like the initial announcement at the stadium, DeTuccio said the spectacle came as a surprise.

“I definitely was not expecting this kind of crowd,” he said, as people began trickling over to Santa Rita’s Ranch House for a reception. “The police, the firefighters, the motorcyclists, the street being shut down. It took me a second to collect myself again.”

Since returning from Iraq in 2008, DeTuccio and his wife, Nicole, have struggled to secure a normal domestic life for themselves and their four children.

DeTuccio joined the military in 2007. His Special Operations unit in Iraq, the 10th Mountain Division 2nd Infantry 30th Battalion, was known for its raids and extractions.

A year later, tragedy struck.

“On Feb. 19, 2008, they were ambushed outside their compound,” reads the release sent by Operation Finally Home. “DeTuccio was struck with an improvised rocket-propelled explosive device, and was transported to Balad Air Base trauma center.”

The explosion sent shrapnel through his legs, tore his shoulder and rattled his psyche. He spent almost two years in a hospital.

Now he finds it difficult to walk, even with a cane.

On advice from his Wounded Warrior program, DeTuccio sent an application to Operation Finally Home after he was a couple of years out of the hospital.

“I had to fill out so much paperwork,” he said. “They interviewed my entire chain of command, they did everything. It was years. And the whole time, you don’t have any idea what’s going on.”

“Unfortunately, finding families in need is the easiest thing to do,” said Dan Wallrath, the president and founder of Operation Finally Home.

“The caseworkers in [Veterans Affairs] work with these families for several years. They know which families are trying to get ahead in life despite injuries. They know for which families a home will actually help.”

The families who then reach out to the organization are subject to a scrutinous vetting process.

“We can go through 37 applicants just to find one,” Wallrath said.

They do background checks, he added, but also make sure the veteran’s family can afford a free home. They try to find the families a builder that has already agreed to the project, in an area close to a VA office.

After families are moved into their home, “they become a part of our family,” Wallrath said.

The veterans are connected to others in the area, and Operation Finally Home assigns someone to keep in close contact with the family through the following years.

“We don’t just up and abandon them after the home,” Wallrath said.

The organization has provided hundreds of homes across the nation since it launched in 2005.

In DeTuccio’s case, builders from Highland Homes planned around his particular situation by widening the door frames in the plan and putting a master bedroom on the first floor, among other details.

The home is located within the Santa Rita Ranch subdivision, a 3,100-acre community just north of the State Highway 29 and Ronald Reagan intersection.

Horne said Operation Finally Home fits within the Santa Rita Ranch community’s “ranch values,” such as bringing families together.

“That’s why we got involved,” he said. “You will find in this neighborhood, that they’ll end up connecting to the family very quickly. They’ll fill their pantry with food. We’ve even had people show up and bring brand new furniture to a house.”

A woman standing nearby, who will soon be a neighbor to the DeTuccios, joined the conversation to say that she was impressed by the outpouring of support, and looks forward to the DeTuccios joining their community.

Horne added, “What’s important isn’t going to be just building a home. It’s a team effort on the part of the community to give the family long term support.”

As a society, he said, “we don’t know how to give back to veterans,” he said. “I didn’t know how to give back.”

But Operation Finally Home, he said, “shows us an opportunity to give back.”

This is the second home from Operation Finally Home Santa Rita Ranch has provided for a disabled veteran. The first was two years ago.

“We hope to do this on an annual basis, too,” Horne said.

Highland Homes will be constructing the house on the site.

Marketing Manager Brittany Heffenan said that her company had enjoyed getting to know the family over the last few months. After the announcement at the stadium, they enjoyed a dinner and lunch together afterwards.

Though these kind of homes normally take six to nine months, she said, this home should be ready by June.

Waylon@LHIndependent.com

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