BROOKSVILLE - Staff Sgt. Ken Patterson thought he would never walk again after losing much of his right leg along with his left foot four years ago in the war in Afghanistan.
But Monday at the Trillium community in Brooksville, Patterson rose from his seat to shake hands with U.S. Rep. Rich Nugent and state Sen. Wilton Simpson, who were just a few of the dignitaries on hand welcoming Patterson and his family to the site of their new home.
Thanks to HelpingaHero.org, who partnered with Pulte Homes to fund the 2,600 square foot home's construction, Patterson and his family will be living in their new four-bedroom house by Thanksgiving.
"In Houston, every severely injured veteran who applied received a home," said Meredith Iler, national chairman and founder of the HelpingaHero.org Home Program: a Houston-based non profit, non-partisan organization that provides support for military personnel severely injured in the war on terror.
"We want to get there in Florida, too," she said, referring to getting homes for severely injured veterans who have applied for assistance from the organization. In addition to Monday's ground breaking the organization has five more ground breakings planned in the next 60 days, including ones in Tampa and Orlando.
The Patterson's new home will include four bedrooms, 2.5 baths, is fully wheelchair accessible with wider doors, as well as a roll in shower and sink.
Patterson, who currently resides in Citrus County, praised Iler for accepting his application to receive the home and her organization's assistance, and attended the ground-breaking ceremony with his wife, Jessica, and nine-year-old son, Jonathan, whom Patterson stressed were crucial to him as a recuperating soldier.
"This has been a major help in my recovery," Patterson said. "The families, and the spouses of soldiers make sure they receive care, because they're going through the same thing too. They're changing their whole life, and it's overwhelming. Without the spouses, none of the recovery processes would be possible."
A machine gunner, Patterson was near the front of the CH-47 Chinook helicopter in 2009 when it touched down at the water drop site in Afghanistan.
Afghani troops accompanying U.S. Army soldiers that day hopped out to unload the cargo in what was supposed to be a routine mission. But rocket propelled grenades started exploding around them in an apparent Taliban ambush.
"It went through the back of the helicopter and killed an interpreter," Patterson said Monday as he described to a group of reporters the grenade that would irreversibly shift the course of his life.
"It bounced off the ground and hit me in front," he said.
Patterson lost conscious following the explosion. But when he did wake up he did so to a "nightmare" only just beginning.
"It's been so traumatic, I don't know even know how to explain it," Patterson said.
He tried to stand up when he regained consciousness but he soon realized his right leg below the knee was gone.
"He was missing his left foot, too," said Iler.
"He had two weeks left in the country (Afghanistan), and two missions left during his tour of duty," she said. "He called his family back in Georgia to tell them he was OK, but in reality, he was having trouble breathing on his own and did not want them to worry."
Patterson spent three years in rehabilitation at the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, and after three combat tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, he retired from the U.S. Army in 2013.
"It was good and it was bad," said Patterson. "The hospital was set up to facilitate the recovery. Every day I had to go from someone feeding me to me feeding myself, me not wanting to exercise to them making me exercise."
Patterson said having to transition from being a career soldier doing 20 tasks a day, to far fewer responsibilities in everyday life, has been difficult: becoming a soldier was a call he'd answered a long time ago.
"I miss being in the Army. I miss the camaraderie. Despite my injury, I miss it all," Patterson said. "Looking back on it, if I had known I would have missed it this much, I would have stayed, because they could have put me in a special unit."
"As long as I find some land to ride my four-wheeler on, I'll be all right," he said.