HUNTSVILLE, Weber County — Welcome home.
That’s the message friends, family and supporters had for veteran U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Travis Vendela, his wife, Tiffany and their three sons on Friday as the family was about to enter, for the first time, their brand-new home perched on a hillside above Pineview Reservoir.
The house was a gift to Vendela and his family, made possible by a New York-based charitable group, Tunnel to Towers, formed after the 9/11 attacks and dedicated to building mortgage-free homes for catastrophically injured veterans and first responders. The project includes donations of materials, products and volunteer hours by numerous Utah businesses and their employees.
Vendela said he was a man rarely prone to crying, but Friday’s event led to an exception to the rule.
“I never thought that anything could move me to tears,” Vendela said. “I’m a pretty tough dude ... but with all this stuff combined, with seeing the house, it makes you grateful for this country and the people who live in it.”
The Vendela family’s new home stands out from the the dozens of new and still-under-construction houses in the area not because of how it looks from the outside, but because of what’s going on inside and the story of how it came to be.
Vendela lost both legs and suffered numerous other injuries in a horrific incident in Iraq in 2007 when he was on a reconnaissance patrol leading a convoy near the Tigris River. The Humvee in which Vendela was riding was struck twice by explosive devices, leading to severe injuries that included a fractured pelvis, elbow and spine, a shattered jaw, traumatic brain injury and wounds that led to the amputation of both of his legs above the knee.
Vendela would recuperate from his injuries and go on to marry the woman he was engaged to at the time, have three sons, and pursue a new calling as a high school football coach. But the road to recovery was not an easy one.
“A little over two years ago, before Tunnel to Towers contacted me, I was becoming a very cynical person,” Vendela said. “I’ve never complained about being wounded or any of that, but I did need help.”
Vendela said while he would never forget the assistance he has received from Veterans Affairs and other groups, the support network for injured veterans is one that moves very slowly and just did not keep up with his and his family’s needs.
“Organizations, the VA included ... say that they’ll do something but then they find a reason not to do it,” Vendela said. “After 10 years of that, you start to lose faith.”
That faith got a huge boost following an unexpected phone call in the spring of 2018.
“Tunnel to Towers called and said, ‘We want to build you a house,’” Vendela said. “At first I didn’t believe it. Then, a month into it they invited us to an event in New York, all expenses paid, and since then they have gone above and beyond what they say they’re going to do.
“That brought the love out of my crusty, hard exterior.”
The Vendela’s new home is designed to make life as easy as possible for a person the relies on a wheelchair for mobility. Smart controllers are located at automated exterior doorways, hallways and spaces around appliances are extra wide, the stovetop can be raised and lowered, and a unique roll-in bathroom/shower area just off the master bedroom was built to accommodate Vendela’s needs. Both he and his wife called the accommodations “life-changing.”
“Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined what this day was,” Tiffany Vendela said. “I’m feeling so blessed. This house is really going to be a safe haven for our family.”
Travis Vendela said the amenities would not only make it easier for him to do all the day-to-day things that can be made much more difficult in a typical home design, but would also lighten the load for his wife and sons.
“Here, even just this few minutes I’ve been in this house, I’m feeling so much more relaxed and comfortable knowing that it’s for me,” Travis Vendela said. “It’s built to where I don’t have to work around the house, the house is working around me.”
Helping celebrate the Vendela’s receipt of the house was Tunnel to Towers national engagement coordinator Andrew McClure, an escort for the Vendela family provided by dozens of motorcycle riders with the Patriot Guard Riders group, former “American Idol” contestant Jax, who performed several songs, and Jennie Taylor, the widow of North Ogden Mayor Brent Taylor, an Army National Guard reserve officer who was killed 20 months ago while serving in Afghanistan. Jennie Taylor and her children also received help from Tunnel to Towers, which paid off the outstanding mortgage debt on the family’s home following Maj. Brent Taylor’s death.
The Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation was formed in 2002 with to mission to honor the sacrifice of New York City firefighter Stephen Siller, who lost his life working to save victims of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11, 2001. The organization says it has spent over $250 million to “honor and support our first responders and their families.
When asked if taking possession of his new home on the eve of Independence Day had special meaning, Travis Vendela said the timing could not be more significant.
“I joined in 1997 and my whole family is pretty much military,” Vendela said. “I was born and raised that you have a patriotic duty to the country, to do something greater than yourself. The ultimate symbol of that, besides the flag, is the 4th of July.
“I’m a representative of guys that went forth and got wounded and killed for that flag, for that independence. I am a part of that, I’m molded into that holiday and into that flag. It’s huge for me.”