Lance Cpl. James Poggi thought he was dreaming when he and his wife Stefanie arrived at the site of their future home in Mascoutah.
A giant American flag waved from a fire engine’s extended ladder, over the Mascoutah High School marching band and Junior ROTC squadron standing at attention. The Poggis were escorted by three groups of veteran biker, and greeted by leaders of the construction industry and Mascoutah government, all welcoming them as future residents.
“I’m waiting to be woken up,” James Poggi said.
The Poggis had applied for Operation Finally Home, which is a nonprofit that builds custom mortgage-free homes for military veterans and widows. They thought they were arriving to interview with the homebuilders, and Poggi said he expected to be sitting in a construction trailer answering questions.
Instead, Operation Finally Home leaders, homebuilders and donors spoke about the program, and how happy they were to welcome the Poggis to Mascoutah.
Poggi enlisted in the U.S. Marines at age 19. He was deployed to Afghanistan in 2010, where he was injured while helping to land an aircraft. He was diagnosed with severe nerve damage, spinal cord compression and peripheral neuropathy. He received an honorable discharge and has continued to suffer from memory loss and post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as spinal meningitis. He tried to work, but kept losing jobs due to his service-related problems, he said.
Poggi has received a number of medals, including the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Navy Unit Commendation and others. His left leg has been amputated below the knee with a prosthetic limb replacing it, and he uses a wheelchair.
But he can’t help Stefanie with the kids, or mow the lawn, or move easily through their house in north central Illinois, which was not prepared for the needs of a wheelchair. The new house will allow them to “live a life without obstacles,” Stefanie said.
“Ever since I came home from Afghanistan, she’s had to do everything,” Poggi said, his voice choking. “Now I can help take care of her ... I can’t put words on that.”
The program provides a custom-built, mortgage-free home, funded by private donations from dozens of organizations. Among them are Homes By Deesign, which will build the house in a new Mascoutah subdivision; the Home Builders Association of Greater Southwest Illinois; and the Christian Broadcasting Network, which funds the project as part of its video series, “Helping the Home Front.” Crews from “The 700 Club” will follow the Poggis for a while and air the documentary on their program in 2018.
Operation Finally Home has built approximately 135 houses for wounded, ill or injured veterans and widows, and 100 more homes are in progress, according to program leaders. Organizer Tracy Butler, who works with the Home Builders Association, said it’s sometimes difficult to find veterans for the program, because people in the service are often too proud to ask for help.
Waves of applause greeted the Poggis and their young children, Logan and Riley, as they got out of the car. “I feel like I’m dreaming,” Stefanie Poggi said as she looked at the crowd. “There’s a lot of people here!”
Bob Dee of Homes By Deesign said that the number of people who pitched in for the project is “inspirational.”
“Our project has moved forward at a pace we did not think possible,” Dee said.
David Padgett, president of the Home Builders Association, said whenever they called someone for a donation or assistance, they were in.
The students from nearby Mascoutah High School participated with their marching band and the Junior ROTC Air Force squadron at attention, presenting the Poggis with a folded American flag.
“We are a very proud community,” said Mascoutah Mayor Gerald Daugherty, himself a 26-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force. “We are happy to have you with us.”
The whole family worked together to turn over the first dirt with the golden shovel, including the two younger children. Later, one of the bikers told the children that they intend to build them a playground in their new back yard, and the children yelled in excitement.
When asked to speak, Poggi said he didn’t have words. “I don’t understand how there can be people so good, so willing to help,” he said. “I don’t feel like a failure anymore.”