JACKSONVILLE, N.C. --
With the turn of a key, Vincent Gizzarelli stepped into his new house for the very first time, April 28. His wife, Jamie, tears streaming down her face, accompanied him inside with their five children in tow. The 3,000-square foot home, filled with the pleasing aroma of wood and lacquer, looked like a display model, complete with furniture, linens, upholstery, dinnerware and televisions in the main rooms.
The Gizzarelli’s have not made a down payment on the house. They have not paid for any of the furniture inside. They never will.
The house, valued at approximately $400,000 dollars, was built using supplies and donations from local businesses and various veterans’ groups in a project organized by Operation Finally Home. This non-profit organization provides custom-made, mortgage-free homes to wounded and disabled veterans and widows of fallen service members. Since being established in 2005, OFH has built nearly 50 homes in ten different states.
“If anybody deserves the American dream, it’s those who are fighting for it,” said Daniel Vargas, Executive Director of OFH. “It’s the men and women who protect us day in and day out.”
Home has been an elusive concept for Gizzarelli. The former Marine staff sergeant has traveled a rough path the past nine years.
Gizzarelli enlisted in the Marine Corps after graduating from high school in 1998. Ever since he was 10 years old, he wanted to be a Marine. Growing up in Niagra Falls, N.Y., Gizzarelli would listen to his father’s stories about being a Marine in Vietnam.
During his first enlistment, Gizzarelli served in Marine Corps Security Forces in Keflavik, Iceland, and participated in peacekeeping operations while aboard ship in the Mediterranean Sea.
After reenlisting in 2002, Gizzarelli received orders to 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment and deployed to Iraq during the initial invasion in March 2003. He took part in the fighting that occurred, March 23, around the city of An Nasiriyah. Eighteen Marines made the ultimate sacrifice that day.
“It was my baptism of fire and it was pretty bad,” recalled Gizzarelli. “I’m just going to leave it at that.”
Gizzarelli and his fellow Marines returned home in May 2003. At his homecoming ceremony, his first wife was there holding their daughter, born a few days earlier. Although he was happy to be back on U.S. soil, Gizzarelli said it all felt surreal.
“It was kind of weird,” said Gizzarelli. “It was kind of uncomfortable, kind of cool, you know? We’re the new breed. We just put our niche in the history books, in the lore of the Marine Corps. It felt awesome to be home, but to be honest with you, I was still over there (in Iraq).”
In July 2004, Gizzarelli deployed to Iraq again. During this deployment he survived five IED blasts, two of which knocked him unconscious and left shrapnel in his left leg. He was awarded a purple heart for the injuries he sustained in combat.
After returning home in March 2005, Gizzarelli was selected for recruiting duty and was sent to a recruiting station in southwestern Pennsylvania. During this time, he and his wife separated and the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder became evident.
“I didn’t recognize it at first,” said Gizzarelli. “I was having a lot of difficulty sleeping, I had a real short fuse and recruiting duty isn’t the easiest duty at all.
“I prefer combat over recruiting duty – I’d take it in a heartbeat. Long hours, lot of hard work, lot of stress; you’re dealing with mom and dad and they don’t want their boy or girl going into the Marine Corps. It kind of wears on you. I started losing hours. I’d look at the clock and I would wonder where two hours went.”
With the strain of recruiting and the dissolution of his marriage, Gizzarelli found himself in a hole, physically and mentally. He sought help at Bethesda Naval Hospital and, after five years of suffering from the effects of PTSD, was finally diagnosed and able to begin treatment.
It was also during this time that Gizzarelli met his wife Jamie, whom he married in November 2007. He credits her with being able to help him seek treatment and get his symptoms under control.
“There’s been a lot of struggles,” said Jamie. “Emotional – everyday coming home being frustrated. Just got to have each other’s back. You got to stand by each other.”
Following his stint as a recruiter, Gizzarelli was assigned to the operations office for Headquarters Battalion, 2nd Marine Division based at Camp Lejeune, N.C. His duties included organizing and executing training operations and trips to the rifle range. Despite his previous treatment, Gizzarelli found himself struggling to focus and complete the simplest of tasks.
“As an infantry NCO (non-commissioned officer), you multitask. You have to juggle a lot of balls to get the job done. Here I am doing simple paperwork and I just couldn’t get it done. They were demanding things of me that I simply couldn’t do anymore. It affected me emotionally. I’m a Marine, I can do it – there is no quit. I found myself failing at simple things and it was driving me nuts.”
Gizzarelli was suffering from an injury common to service members who have been exposed to IED blasts: traumatic brain injury. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, from 2007 to 2009, more than 24,000 veterans were confirmed to have sustained this signature injury of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The more severe symptoms include headaches, loss of balance, anxiety, memory lapses and impaired concentration and attention.
Shortly after being diagnosed with TBI, Gizzarelli found himself at the Wounded Warrior Battalion, which specializes in taking care of wounded, ill and injured Marines and their families as they recover and transition back to life as a civilian.
After going through the transition process back to civilian life, Gizzarelli was medically retired from the Marine Corps in February 2009.
Since then, the Gizzarelli’s have continued to live in Jacksonville, N.C., only a few miles away from Camp Lejeune. Despite facing financial hardship and taking care their own two children, the couple decided to adopt three boys, ages three to five, who were stuck in an abusive home.
According to Vargas, the quest to gain custody of the three children is what led Operation Finally Home to select the Gizzarelli’s as the recipients of the new house.
“That service before self is still there,” said Vargas. “That basically set it off. They need this home. (He’s) not only taking care of his family, but he’s taking care of three others.”
The Gizzarelli’s said they are more than thankful to all of those who have had a hand in building and putting the house together, which they see as a “new beginning.”
“It hasn’t been easy since I’ve gotten out of the Marine Corps,” said Gizzarelli. “Emotionally, it’s been very difficult. Organizations, like Operation Finally Home, that do this for service members…it gives us a fresh start. I can think of a lot of guys who I served with who I personally feel are more deserving of this. I’m blessed. My family’s blessed that we’ve been given this opportunity.
“If I had it my way, every wounded veteran from the damn war would have a free house.”
As friends and family members flooded into the new home, Gizzarelli made his way up to a special room that was constructed directly above the garage, which he calls, “The Man Cave.” He walked in, sat down on a couch and relaxed. He was finally home.