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Wounded W.Va. Iraq war veteran gets free house

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A Charleston-born U.S. Army veteran who had counseled other wounded vets to seek housing assistance from the Military Warriors Support Foundation became the surprise recipient of a mortgage-free home from the foundation during a ceremony Wednesday at Haddad Riverfront Park.

Bruce E. Burgess was among veterans and active-duty military personnel invited to attend the ceremony, during which MWSF founder Lt. Gen. Leroy Sisco announced plans to expand the three-year-old organization's home donation program for combat-wounded vets.

Since 2010, the MWSF has donated more than 300 homes, all fully renovated and equipped with accommodations for those dealing with injuries, to wounded veterans and their families in 35 states. In addition to the homes, typically valued at $150,000 to $250,000, participating vets receive three years of family and financial mentoring.

Burgess, who grew up in Dunbar and now lives in Martinsburg, where he is a senior mass communications major at nearby Shepherd University, is the first vet living in West Virginia to receive a home through the program. His new home, which he will share with his wife, Tanya, and two children, is in Berkeley Springs.

"This is great! I've followed the foundation and believe in its program, and have been encouraging other veterans to apply," a smiling Burgess said after receiving the unexpected, but welcome, news.

Burgess, who had driven a truck in civilian life, enlisted in the Army in 1998, starting out as a driver trainer with a heavy transport unit. In 2001, he volunteered for explosive ordnance disposal training and, in 2003, was deployed to Iraq. There, working from a base in Ar Ramadi, he took part in improvised explosive device (IED) removal, conducted cause-of-death investigations for coalition forces and trained Iraqi military and police personnel.

After completing one tour in Iraq, Burgess re-enlisted and was deployed on a second tour in 2006, this time to Camp Taji, just north of Baghdad. There, he managed a bomb-disposal team and led route-clearance patrols to sweep for IEDs. He was awarded the Bronze Star for neutralizing an unstable and unexploded projectile while under enemy fire.

Burgess suffered traumatic brain injuries several times during his second tour while responding to or neutralizing IEDs. A blast that occurred in December 2006 produced a significant reduction in vision, as well as severe migraines and the loss of certain cognitive skills. In 2007, he was medically evacuated to the United States for treatment at the Army Medical Center at Fort Bragg, N.C., and at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. He later was assigned to limited duty with the U.S. Navy's Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technology Division in Indian Head, Md., where he worked on robotic tool development.

At the time of his discharge in December 2008, he was a staff sergeant.

"Having this house takes some of the pressure off supporting the family," Burgess said. "I'll be able to reduce my class load and be able to start addressing some of the long-term, specialized health-care issues I need to take care of."

At the ceremony, Burgess was introduced to the audience by Wayne and Deby Kyle, parents of former Navy SEAL and "American Sniper" author Chris Kyle, who was shot and killed at a Texas shooting range earlier this year by a veteran he was attempting to help.

"Our son's motto was that it is our duty to serve those who served us," said Wayne Kyle. "That's just what this organization is doing, and we think it's a tremendous thing."

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., who also addressed the audience, said the nation has a duty to "take care of those who sacrifice the most." Despite the fact that "we're in a toxic atmosphere in Washington now, pride in being an American is still strong in Congress," and support of wounded veterans crosses party lines.

Sisco said his foundation's goal is to place another 300 wounded veterans in mortgage-free homes this year. He announced a new initiative to place 500 Gold Star families -- families who have lost a son, daughter, husband or wife in combat -- into mortgage-fee homes during the next several years.

Scott Powell, Ticketmaster's executive vice president of global contact centers, said his company is offering its customers a chance to donate $5 or more to the Military Warriors Support Foundation while buying concert or other entertainment tickets. Ticketmaster sells between 10 million and 20 million tickets a month, Powell said.

A number of announcements of MWSF home donations have been made during sporting and concert events, including 20 during shows headlined by country superstar George Strait.

Sisco encouraged other wounded veterans to visit his organization's website, at www.militarywarriors.org, to apply for its programs.

Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5169.


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