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Wounded vet and his fiancée receive keys to a mortgage-free home

ROCKWELL — Brian Miller and his fiancée, Rachel Laird, pumped up an air mattress Thursday and spent the first night in their new home off Happy Lake Road.
Their furniture will arrive from Pennsylvania as early as today, and they’ll have the weekend to decide where things go.
Having stayed several days at a motel, the couple started packing Brian’s Dodge Ram truck in the parking lot Thursday morning, knowing within hours they would receive the keys and be allowed to go inside the house for the first time.
Brian could hardly contain himself.
“I made him call his mom because he was driving me nuts,” Laird said.
There were some happy tears, several hugs and screams of delight as the couple walked through their three-bedroom, three-bathroom home, built in 2004. The house carries a tax-value of $219,000.
“There’s a whole other house up here,” Rachel yelled to Brian when she reached the top of a stairway.
Wells Fargo and the Military Warriors Support Foundation combined to donate a mortgage-free home to Miller, who is a retired sergeant in the Army National Guard.
On Veterans Day 2012, Wells Fargo made a $30 million commitment in property donations to assist service members, veterans and their families.
In 2013 alone, the company donated to veterans 86 properties, worth more than $11 million.
“I’m just honored to be able to be here today,” said Heather Crawford, vice president and market president for Wells Fargo in Salisbury.
It was the first time she has presented the house keys for a mortgage-free home to a veteran.
Over the past week, veterans in Monroe and Huntersville also have received mortgage-free homes through the Wells Fargo-Military Warriors Support Foundation partnership.
The Huntersville veteran was surprised with the news of his mortgage-free home during halftime of Wednesday night’s Bobcats game in Charlotte.
Over the past three years, Military Warriors Support Foundation has provided homes for 468 families. The nonprofit, San Antonio-based organization has a goal in 2014 of putting veterans in 300 additional homes, MWSF mentor Katie Slattery said.
The mortgage-free homes go to wounded men and women injured during combat or combat training. The homes also are meant for families who have severe and/or unique circumstances because of the injuries.
The veteran also must be honorably retired or separated from the military, and he or she must not currently hold a mortgage. The veteran commits to live in the house at least five years.
Wells Fargo actually will continue to hold the mortgage/deed on Miller’s house while he and Laird go through monthly financial counseling for the next three years.
Slattery will be their mentor, as the couple try to keep up with costs such as property taxes and home insurance, yet without the burden of a mortgage.
“Our goal is to make them as financially strong as possible,” Slattery said. … “A big part of the program is to be a blessing, not a burden.”
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On Easter Day 2009, in only his third month in Iraq, Miller’s Stryker — an armored vehicle much like a tank on eight rubber tires — was hit by an EFP.
EFP stands for explosively formed projectile. At the time, Miller was a gunner, serving in the 2nd 104th Cavalry.
Both of Miller’s legs took heavy hits from shrapnel, but his left leg was particularly bad. “This leg was just wobbly,” Miller said, looking down to his left.
He had enough strength to pull himself from the top of the Stryker. With one arm, a fellow soldier helped him off the armored vehicle and Miller was placed on a litter, moved later to a stretcher and rushed to a main base hospital.
“There was a lot going on,” Miller said of the activity immediately after his Stryker was hit by the EFP. A medic was pulling his pants off, packing his legs and tying tourniquets on both.
“You talk about pain,” Miller said.
He eventually was flown to a medical center in Baghdad, then Germany, then back to the States.
Over 16 months, Miller would face 14 surgeries, and many of the operations aimed at saving his left leg. Infections seemed to follow every surgery.
He finally hoped a knee replacement would work, but a surgeon told him it was the worst knee he had ever seen. All he could do, the doctor said, was fuse it or amputate the leg above the knee.
“You have to realize,” Miller said, “I was counting on that knee replacement.”
A fused knee would have left him with as range of motion of about 30 degrees. Doctors told him it also would turn his foot and put more strain on his bad back. They gave him 60 days to decide between the fused knee or the amputation.
“I knew when I walked out of the office what I wanted to do,” Miller said. He had the amputation in October 2010, and he said he thinks it helped him to come “out of a slump.”
He was battling depression, and Miller said he realized life was not over, but just beginning, especially with Rachel by his side.
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Today, he wears shorts, no matter what the temperature or season and never tries to hide his prosthesis.
Miller, 46, also has gotten heavily involved in adaptive sports, participating in the Wounded Warrior Olympic Games. He thinks North Carolina will offer more opportunity to him for adaptive sports than Pennsylvania did.
His sports have included sitting volleyball, swimming and wheelchair racing. He recently purchased a new handcycle and said he often depends on a wheelchair to give his stump a rest.
Miller worked mainly in construction in York County, Pa., and was a traffic signal technician before his injury. After being wounded, he found an internship with a prosthetics technical company but later was laid off.
He already is enrolled in classes for drafting and technical drawing at ITT Tech near Charlotte. Miller hadn’t signed up for the Army National Guard until he was 38, and he went through basic training at 40.
When the dust settles on their new life in North Carolina, Laird and Miller plan to marry. She worked for the Utz potato chip company in Hanover, Pa., and the company helped her transfer here to work for the Utz distribution center in Charlotte.
She will drive routes. Laird started work Monday.
Bean Realty Group, represented by Beth, Ron and Rob Bean, have been looking after and trying to sell this foreclosed property for the past two-and-a-half years. The Beans were on hand Thursday morning for the handing over of the keys.
The house sits on 2.5 acres, and includes a back patio, an attached garage and a large, detached two-car garage.
Miller and Laird first started their application for a house on the Military Warriors website on New Year’s Eve. They finished the application at 1:30 a.m. New Year’s Day.
They looked at maybe a 100 possible houses on the foundation’s website, but the North Carolina home was the only one they applied for — and they met the criteria.
What does it mean to them?
“The world,” Miller said.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263.

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