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War hero gets a new home in Lutz, for free

LUTZ — At night when it's quiet they pull out the blueprint of their home and talk of color schemes and wood floors. They talk of how the lot they picked faces the lake, and how lovely that will be, to always have that view from their front door.

Austin and Donna Burchard have been living in a hotel for months and in hospital rooms before that. They couldn't believe it when they were approached by a charity last year that offered to build them a home for free. They pay nothing, not for the land or construction or landscaping. A friend had submitted their story to Homes for Our Troops, a nonprofit based in Massachusetts that builds houses for severely injured veterans.

It has built more than 100 specially-adapted homes across the nation since it was founded in 2004; homes with smooth ramps and wide hallways, sinks and stoves and showers designed for people in wheelchairs. At any given time, there are more than 150 applicants hoping to be picked.

The worst cases are chosen.

Sgt. Austin Burchard qualified quickly.

On March 19, 2009, Burchard was on duty in Afghanistan when he was accidentally shot by a local translator who, Burchard says, was being shown by another American soldier how to load and unload a machine gun. The Army would not confirm that Friday.

The bullet entered Burchard's side, tore through his colon, his left kidney, his spleen. It shattered his spine, lacerated his liver, punctured his right kidney, damaged his gallbladder and pancreas. His heart stopped twice on the way from Afghanistan to Germany to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., where Donna waited for him.

They're both from Kansas, which is where they met. Their first date was March 1, 2002 and they were married March 8, 2003. She was a divorced single mother and wanted no part of love. Burchard, now 31, was a server at a truck stop diner where her parents were regulars. They adored him, this kind, giant of a man, 6 feet 4 inches, broad shoulders, 260 pounds. They called their daughter and passed the phone to Burchard. He asked her out. Donna, now 35, said yes.

"Who wouldn't fall in love with him?" she said.

He was great with her daughter, Cheyenne, now 14. Burchard was working as a forklift driver at a car battery plant, but felt like there was no chance of advancement.

He felt drawn toward joining the Army. He wanted to serve his country and he wanted the job security for his family. He and Donna discussed it and made the decision together.

Burchard enlisted in September 2007 and was sent to Fort Drum, N.Y., which is where they were living when he was deployed to Afghanistan. He was shot three months later.

He spent a week in a medically induced coma. When he opened his eyes, he saw white walls and his wife's face.

"Oh," he thought. "This is not good."

Burchard was paralyzed from the waist down. He was so fragile that his splintered spine couldn't be fixed for months. Eight tubes drained fluids from his body, which was wracked with fever. An infection in his brain permanently altered his speech. He stumbles for words.

In May 2009 he was transferred to the spinal cord injury program at James A. Haley Veterans' Hospital in Tampa. He had to learn how to sit up again, how to put on his shoe, how to maneuver his wheelchair and change his colostomy bag. His condition makes him susceptible to blood clots. He's had five. Each could have killed him.

He was released from the hospital in December.

Construction on the couple's house began Friday morning. It's in Stonebrier in Lutz, on the corner of Sweet Grass Way and Mapleridge Drive. It should be done — from paint to permits — in 60 days. They are going to have a red front door with gorgeous stained glass. Their bedroom will be beige. There won't be any place Burchard can't go.

"I'm ready to live," said Burchard, who plays on wheelchair basketball and softball teams. He dreams of simple, every day things. Manning a grill, having friends over. Donna dreams of coming in through their new front door, kicking off her shoes, shouting "I'm home," to her husband and giving him a kiss, like any normal couple on any normal day, something they haven't had for a very long time.

Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Erin Sullivan can be reached at esullivan@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6229.

.Fast facts

Homes for Our Troops

For information about Austin Burchard and updates and photos of his new home, go to homesforourtroops.org/Burchard or call 1-866-7-TROOPS (787-6677.)

More volunteers will be needed in a few weeks to help with landscaping. The organization also has other homes planned in the Tampa Bay area. Contact Homes for Our Troops to see how you can help.

War hero gets a new home in Lutz, for free 05/13/11 [Last modified: Friday, May 13, 2011 10:31pm]
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