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Great Falls Tribune - New Home Designed for Guardsman PDF Print E-mail
Written by Kim Skornogoski   
Wednesday, 07 June 2006 13:57

New home designed for Guardsman
Wednesday, June 7, 2006
By: KIM SKORNOGOSKI Tribune Staff Writer

CASCADE -- To block out her fears while her husband was unconscious and undergoing months of surgeries, Dena Bennett filled her head with plans for what needed to be done to ready their home for the day he could come back.

Great Falls Tribune - John Bennett

Wounded National Guardsman John Bennett moves from his recliner to his wheelchair on Thursday in Cascade. Bennett was paralyzed from the waist down in Iraq in February when he was shot, and the bullet severed his spine. Homes For Our Troops, a nonprofit organization that helps severely injured veterans acquire handicapped accessible homes, is helping Bennett and his family build a new home.

In February 2005, a sniper’s bullet sliced Montana National Guard Staff Sgt. John Bennett’s kidney, spleen and spine, shattering two vertebrae and paralyzing him from the waist down.

Bennett was serving with the 163rd Mechanized Infantry unit in Iraq at the time his convoy was ambushed.

He spent six months in hospitals, with Dena at his side, before returning home to Cascade.

They returned to a newly paved path to their back door, new tiles in their family room and a wider sliding glass door. And in the months since, Dena has pounded away at her project list.

But the work wasn’t enough. So with the help of a national nonprofit group, the community of Cascade is preparing to build the six-member Bennett family a new five-bedroom, 2,600 square-foot home that will be completely wheelchair accessible.

“It tears your heart to see what they’re going through,” said retired contractor Terry Curnow, who is heading up the project. “Anything people are willing to give, I’ll put it to good use.”

Homes For Our Troops was founded in 2004 and has since finished six homes for returning veterans. A dozen other projects are in the works, including the Bennetts’ home.

The nonprofit organization is prepared to give $150,000 to build the Bennetts’ new home, but any materials, services or money that the community donates will enable the group to help more veterans.

After five years, Homes For Our Troops lifts a lien on the home and the Bennetts will own it outright.

“Who better deserves the American dream of home ownership than these guys who have sacrificed so much for it,” said Homes For Our Troops Project Director Kirt Rebello.

The Bennetts bought their 1906 stone house seven years ago, admiring its woodwork, pocket doors and charm.

While at the veterans hospital in Seattle, they were coached on how to maneuver John’s wheelchair and went over the house’s layout with an accessibility expert.

They soon realized when they got home that their plans couldn’t touch on all the adjustments that were needed.

“There were so many things that we didn’t even think about,” Dena said. The house is built on a hill, with steep stone steps to climb to the front door and a sloping dirt alley in the back. John can only get in and out of one door on his own.

The two metal rods in his back make it difficult for him to put much muscle into propelling his chair up the hills. The knobs on the stove are on the back and hard to reach from his wheelchair, causing John to burn himself on a burner. And the fridge is in a narrow nook that John crams his wheelchair into so he can swing open the refrigerator door.

The dining table is too low for him to fit his wheelchair under, so the family rarely gathers there for meals together.

The good-sized master bedroom shrank when the couple got a new bed that had a headboard sturdy enough for John to use for leverage to flip himself over in the night to prevent bed sores.

The only other bedroom on the main floor was converted into a second bathroom. The tub and shower in the old bathroom are on a raised level, and the room itself is too narrow for John to turn himself around.

Without the second upstairs bedroom, the Bennetts’ four kids, ages 16, 14, 12 and 11, all moved to the basement, where the ceiling is only two inches taller than their oldest son.

John has had to give up the routine of tucking the kids in and kissing them goodnight. And when the teenagers are playing their stereo loud, they can’t hear him calling them to dinner at the top of the steps.

In the months since the house was renovated for John’s return, the basement flooded — twice. The problems brought Curnow to their home, and he’s been working to build them a new one ever since.

The plans have changed several times. At first, they were going to expand the current house, then demolish it and start from scratch. Now they are on the verge of buying a new lot and starting construction.

Great Falls architect Steve L’Heureux talked with the couple to help design their future home.

And Cascade businessmen Murry Moore and Bill Peterson are selling the lot at half its value. The new location is near the school, the baseball field, a park and the town swimming pool and has a nice view of a butte.

Curnow said the home will be a one-level ranch-style. And while 2,600 square feet may seem large, every room must be built with five feet of open space to give John enough room to turn his wheelchair around.

The kitchen will have two sinks, one low enough for John to reach easily. The bathrooms will have a shower that he can wheel into.  

During his first few months home, he had to settle for sponge baths.

Curnow convinced several laborers to help out, but with construction season hitting full gear now, finagling the crews could be tricky. Members of John’s troop, the 163rd Mechanized Infantry unit, have offered to help build.

“Everyone I’ve talked to says tell me what you need,” Dena said. “People really have been wonderful. They’ve been really good to us.”

John’s hope is that the garage — his favorite part of their current house — will have a work center built at his level so he can take up woodworking again. And after the kids graduate, one bedroom will become home to a billiards table, a sport he hopes to play in an upcoming paralympic competition in Alaska.

Homes For Our Troops hopes to finalize buying the property in the next few weeks and begin construction immediately. The home could be ready by September or October.

“Getting his life back to as normal as we can is at least what he deserves,” Dena said.

“It’ll just be so nice that I can get to everything,” John said.

Reach Tribune Staff Writer Kim Skornogoski at 791-6574, (800) 438-6600 or This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .  Originally published June 3, 2006 

Last Updated ( Tuesday, 25 November 2008 00:00 )