Foundation building 'smart home' for triple-amputee veteran and his family
Tigard resident Wade Mitcheltree is looking forward to living in his new house, now under construction on Inez Street.
But for Mitcheltree, life is quite a bit different than it is for most people, and that means the house being built for him and his family will be a little different as well.
Mitcheltree served his country in the U.S. Army, and he bled for it. While on a tour of duty in southern Afghanistan, near Kandahar, in August 2012, he stepped on an improvised explosive device buried in the ground.
"In that explosion, I had a dramatic amputation to my right leg," Mitcheltree recalled. "The blast took off … about two-thirds of the soft tissue that was on my left leg from the knee down, and then it dislocated — the term the VA used was a 'severe derangement' to — my left knee. And then on my right arm, I lost all of the soft tissue on the underside of my forearm and lost the pinky side of my hand."
There was more.
"Basically, it kind of broke my pelvis and opened it up like a book," Mitcheltree said. "And then I ruptured both eardrums."
Mitcheltree, who was eventually discharged with the rank of sergeant, spent the better part of the next two years recovering and rehabilitating. Along the way, by choice, he lost more parts of his body, parts that had been damaged in the explosion and were not healing.
What was left of his right hand went first.
"I kept it for a year and tried therapy, and it just wasn't working, and I was having more pain than anything with it," Mitcheltree said. He decided to have it amputated, he said, to improve his quality of life.
Last year, his lower left leg — which doctors had attempted to repair with skin and tissue grafts — followed.
"It wasn't healing, so I still had open wounds for that whole three and a half years," Mitcheltree said. "And I got tired of worrying about having an infection … I was starting to have problems with the swelling. It was being real painful, and things like that."
After talking to Veterans Affairs doctors about his options, he said, "I decided to go with a below-the-knee amputation on the left leg."
This March will mark the anniversary of that third amputation.
Because Mitcheltree is missing parts of three limbs, day-to-day living for the veteran isn't always easy.
"With prosthetics, the ankles of the feet, they don't flex a whole lot, so you kind of have to adjust them so you can have a normal gait when you walk when you're wearing shoes," he said. "So it's a little tricky to walk without shoes on in the house when I come in."
In the kitchen: "If I'm on my prosthetics, I actually have to sit on the floor to get stuff off the bottom shelf when it's in the back. And then when I'm in my wheelchair, stuff on the top shelves I can't reach unless I have one of those little grabber arms."
In the bathroom: "Showering is kind of an event for me. … I have a leg that I could wear in the shower, but it's not a leg I wear all of the time."
While he was rehabilitating in San Antonio, Mitcheltree said, actor Gary Sinise played a show with his Lt. Dan Band (named for the character Sinise portrayed in the film "Forrest Gump") at his facility.
"One of the concerts that they put on when I was going through rehab there was when they were trying to get applicants … to become part of the R.I.S.E. program," Mitcheltree said.
R.I.S.E. is an acronym for "Restoring Independence Supporting Empowerment." A program of the Gary Sinise Foundation, with funding from The Home Depot Foundation and The Marcus Foundation, it partners with contractors, supplies and others to build and donate homes to veterans and their families.
"It's through that program that we build smart homes for our nation's most severely wounded," explained Scott Schaeperkoetter, the program's director of operations.
He added, "The Gary Sinise Foundation obviously takes a lot of great pride in being able to build these homes. … It takes a great team of people to do it. We have some great partners, some national partners, that are involved in all of the homes we build across the country."
On Jan. 11, the foundation broke ground on a house being built for Mitcheltree and his family on Inez Street in Tigard.
"They've got two young boys, so they wanted to remain in the same school district," Schaeperkoetter said.
That meant finding land in the area, which Schaeperkoetter said wasn't easy. The footprint of the house being built isn't quite as large as hoped for. Adapting to that, he said, "We designed a two-story house for Wade and Katie and the boys, but everything is on the main level that Wade is going to need access to."
"One of the stipulations with the foundation building the house, the VA has to OK everything, and for the VA to approve it, everything that I need on a daily basis has to be on the first floor," Mitcheltree said.
The kitchen, laundry room, master suite and living room will be on the first floor, with only the kids' bedrooms upstairs. A stairwell chair will be installed to allow Mitcheltree to easily move up and down the stairs, although he said that with some effort, he can navigate stairs while wearing his prosthetic legs as well.
The term "smart home" refers not just to the design, but to the systems integrated into the house.
"All of our homes, we introduce a certain level of smart technology into the homes," Schaeperkoetter said. "The lighting control is a main part of that home automation system. So he can control all the lights on that main level of the home with his iPhone or mobile device."
That goes for the house's HVAC system and security cameras that monitor the outside of the building and the front entrance, too.
"We incorporate audio-video into that home automation as well," Schaeperkoetter said. "A lot of times, music is soothing for these guys … so we integrate the whole-home audio into the house as well."
The smart technology is a boon to veterans like Mitcheltree, for whom moving around isn't trivial.
"It's just one more way that we can make their lives a little bit easier and allow them a little more independence," Schaeperkoetter said.
Asked whether he thinks the smart home will make his home living easier, Mitcheltree responded, "It'll make things amazingly — yeah. I don't really have words to describe the advantages that I (will) have with the house. Just being more independent while I'm at home, whether I'm wearing my prosthetics or not."
The house is set to be dedicated in September. Schaeperkoetter said construction is expected to take six to seven months.
Houses built by the Gary Sinise Foundation are donated to veterans and their families.
By Mark Miller
Assistant Editor, The Times