Businesses help renovate O'Fallon home for Marine who lost both legs

News-DemocratNovember 9, 2013 

What a difference a year makes.

That's the sentiment of Leigh Van Etten, who is a veteran and the mother of retired Marine Cpl. Chris Van Etten, who lost both his legs in Afghanistan in June 2012.

Last December, their O'Fallon home was vandalized with graffiti in what appeared to be a random criminal act.

This December, the family hopes to unveil a newly remodeled basement thanks to the generosity of a Belleville business and other members of the Home Builders Association of Greater Southwest Illinois.

"We can't thank this community enough for their support of our family," said Leigh Van Etten.

Chris Van Etten, who now resides in San Diego, will come home Dec. 15 for the holidays to a basement fully equipped to handle his new prosthetic legs and his wheelchair, including a new bathroom, kitchenette and egress window.

"The way they designed it should make everyday things a lot easier for me," Chris said.

Leigh, and her husband Wayne, who are both retired from the Air Force, were in the process of taking bids to remodel the basement, so that it would be a suitable home away from home for Chris. They were told they should install an egress window, so the space can legally serve as a bedroom. But the emergency exit window would have to be modified for Chris.

Leigh was pointed in the direction of Belleville-based J.T. McDermott Remodeling Contractors, who specialize in the windows, along with other remodeling.

After one of the contractors visited the home, the remodeling company set up an appointment with the Van Ettens to give an estimate.

"Our team came back and said, 'We really want to do something for this family,'" explained Josh McDermott, business manager at the company.

To the amazement of the Van Ettens, McDermott wanted to do the window -- and help remodel the rest of the basement -- for no cost. They planned to donate the labor and ask for supply and monetary donations from other businesses.

Leigh was in shock: "That was not at all what I expected them to say ... This was completely unbelievable. It was so nice. This whole experience has been a blessing in disguise."

"Because of all the support we have received from O'Fallon and across the nation, it's all been so humbling," she continued. "Even when our house got vandalized, we had neighbors that I hadn't met before helping us. Out of bad comes good. There are people out there that are wonderful, like the McDermotts."

Veterans Affairs benefits will help Chris remodel or a build a home to make it wheelchair accessible. But those benefits can only be used once, Leigh said.

With Chris just 23 years old, his parents wanted to save those benefits for when he builds a permanent home, possibly when he's married with a family.

McDermott is remodeling the basement into one large room with a handicapped-accessible bathroom. The space should serve Chris whether he's wearing his prosthetic legs or using his wheelchair.

"That way, when he's at home at his parents' house, he can get around really easy," said Josh McDermott. "We're finishing off this space for now and in the future, when he's grown and married and coming back for Christmas or Thanksgiving."

Leigh choked back tears when she talked about what part of the remodeling she is most excited about.

"As a mom ... to see your son head off to war with two legs and walk in on his own accord, to having a son that when he comes home he has to make do ... He uses his arms and his butt to get around if he doesn't want to wear his legs," she said. "To watch our son who used to be 6-foot tall, on the ground, really breaks your heart.

"To have a bathroom where he can just wheel in and be comfortable, is what really, really means the most to me."

In September, McDermott contacted Tracy Butler, executive officer of the Home Builders Association of Greater Southwest Illinois, to ask for help. "I brought it to our Board of Directors attention. I couldn't even finish explaining everything and they approved it," Butler said.

"We basically sent out information in our newsletter and an email blast to our members," Butler said. "Whoever could participate whether monetarily or with labor and supplies contacted Josh and went from there."

The response has been a success, with more than 30 businesses donating their time, supplies or money.

But it's not about their generosity, McDermott said.

"This is really about the Marines more than anybody who is helping," he said. "This group of people, it's amazing what they give up for our country."

The cost of the project is in the mid-$20,000 range, McDermott explained. But with supplier donations, they are only short about $4,500, McDermott said.

"We're getting there and I think we're going to make it, but any help counts," he said.

Any extra donations that come in after the cost of the project is met will be donated to the Semper Fi Fund, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that provides financial assistance for injured and critically ill members of the U.S. Armed Forces and their families.

"It's a lot bigger than Chris and his family," McDermott said. "This community has been so amazing to him and his family. These funds will now be there for those people who maybe don't have as supportive of a community or don't know where to turn."

Leigh said she is overwhelmed by the generosity.

"Just to know that people are willing to donate money," Leigh said, "it really touches my heart and gives me hope for the future. Not just for (Chris) but for other wounded warriors out there who might be struggling."

Chris joined the Marine Corps after he graduated from O'Fallon Township High School in 2009.

He was approaching his three-year mark when he was injured in the Helmand province of Afghanistan. Chris was headed back to the operating base after night patrol when a fellow Marine stepped on an improvised explosive device. When trying to get help, Chris stepped on a second IUD that killed fellow Marine T.J. Baune and took Chris' legs, Leigh said.

She said her son's lucky number must be 13: He joined the Marines on July 13, 2009. He lost his legs June 13, 2012. He received his new prosthetic legs on Aug. 13, 2012. He medically retired from the Marines in 2013.

Chris is renting a house in San Diego, where he did his rehabilitation. He has friends there. He plans to go back to school and would like to become a counselor.

Chris is a fitness buff who has built up his upper body strength to help him get around more easily.

In October, he hand cycled the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C. His parents also ran the race.

Right now, he is doing some fitness modeling.

"It's a little weird to see my son pretty much naked all over Facebook, but I'm pretty proud of him," Leigh said.

A lot of injured veterans who lose limbs have body image issues, Leigh said.

"To see him not be afraid to put himself out there, I'm really proud of him."

Contact reporter Maria Hasenstab at mhasenstab@bnd.com or 618-239-2460.

Contact reporter Maria Hasenstab at mhasenstab@bnd.com or 618-239-2460.

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