EAGLE MOUNTAIN — When Sgt. 1st Class Gordon Ewell put on his Army fatigues Saturday, he knew he was going to have his photo taken. But the gang of rapid-firing press photographers who greeted him as he stepped from his car took him by surprise.
He thought he was headed to a family portrait appointment. But the photographers were eager to capture his reaction when he discovered his family had been selected to receive a free home in Eagle Mountain.
"I must be dreaming," said the soldier, who sustained injuries in Iraq that prevent him from holding a job and make it difficult for him to move around the three-story home he rents in Eagle Mountain. "I'm waiting for my wife to wake me up and tell me it's time to get ready for the day."
Homes for Our Troops, a nonprofit organization based in Massachusetts, along with Alta Vista Homes, Mike's Guardian Angel Foundation and KUTV, announced plans Saturday to build the family a 2,500-square-foot home designed to accommodate Ewell's injuries. Three soldiers were nominated to receive a home. Ewell was chosen by a community vote.
Rainy weather forced the groundbreaking ceremony inside a nearby charter school, so Ewell, his wife and six children thrust their shovels into a small sandbox of dirt. The soldier bent down, trembling, to take a handful of the dirt that will be scattered beneath the foundation of his new home and let it run through his fingers.
"This is a bit overwhelming," he said. "Wow."
As a route clearance expert during his most recent deployment, Ewell disarmed roadside bombs. Six violent encounters with undetected bombs left Ewell with brain injuries similar to shaken baby syndrome — broken vertebrae, auditory nerve damage and tunnel vision. He served 22 years in the military.
"Sometimes I get frustrated about having brain damage, but I wouldn't wish that on anyone else," Ewell said. "I am thankful that it is my lot to carry. Each one of those bombs I found could have changed someone else's life forever."
Ewell and his wife, Terra, who supported him as he struggled to walk, sobbed gratefully as Paul Gemme, senior project manager for Homes for Our Troops, passed them the key that will fit the lock to their new home. Gemme said he expects the family will be settled into their new home by Christmas.
Ewell's house is one of 20 scattered across the country that Homes for Our Troops is nailing together for disabled veterans, he said.
"One of the greatest liberties we have in this country is the right to own private property, to own a home," Gemme said. "Gordon Ewell has given so selflessly to protect that liberty for us. There's no way we can possibly repay him for what he's done, but hopefully building this house is a start."
For Bob Lehmiller, founder of sponsor Mike's Guardian Angel Foundation, raising money to pay for Ewell's new house was a "healing process." He started the fund-raising organization after his son Mike was killed fighting in Afghanistan in 2005. With an estimated price tag of $250,000, the house is the biggest project undertaken by foundation.
"This project — it's what Mike would want. It's so important to help all our troops as they come back," Lehmiller said. "They risked their lives for our freedom, and it's important we give back in whatever way we can."
Because Ewell has difficulty maneuvering stairs, the new house will be one level. It will be outfitted with double-wide doors in case Ewell's condition worsens and he must use a wheelchair.
After the ceremony, Ewell posed for photographs with community members.
"Freedom," he said, with a grin as each camera flashed.
Although he admitted, with a good-natured chuckle, "I wish a few of those bombs hadn't found me," Ewell said he doesn't regret returning to the field after each hit.
"Sometimes I still want to go back out there," he said. "There's still bombs that need to be found."