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Wounded veteran gets mortgage-free home in Tampa

TAMPA — The Tampa Palms home stood empty and dilapidated for four years after its owner lost it to foreclosure, one of thousands of broken dreams scattered across Tampa Bay.

Neighbors wondered if anyone would ever again live in the home, which is worth about $186,000. Bank of America ensured that with one act Wednesday — the bank gave it away.

Nicholas Salerno, 24, got the keys. And with it, a fresh start.

Salerno, a former infantryman in the Army's 10th Mountain Division, lost part of his right leg and suffered a traumatic brain injury in the explosion of an improvised-explosive device in Afghanistan in 2010. He expects to move in today with his fiancee, Larissa Breedlove, 23, and their 4-year-old son, Tristan.

The home was donated by Bank of America to the nonprofit Military Warriors Support Foundation of San Antonio, Texas, which has given away 236 mortgage-free homes to combat-wounded veterans nationally. Most are foreclosures.

The foundation then selected Salerno, who had applied online never expecting to be chosen. "I asked the lady who told me if she was kidding," Salerno said. "It didn't seem real."

Salerno and his fiancee toured the four-bedroom, three-bath home on Abbey Park Avenue with Tristan as reporters and camera crews followed.

The couple had peeked in the windows while it was being worked on, but had never stepped inside.

The home has been completely refurbished, including new appliances and a jar of jelly beans on a kitchen counter.

"This is amazing," Salerno said, confessing he had been sleepless with excitement the night before.

"It's a new home, it's a new start, which is what we both really need," Breedlove said.

On Nov. 19, 2010, Salerno was in a column of troops in northern Afghanistan when he stepped on an IED. Salerno doesn't remember any of it. He woke up two weeks later in a military hospital in Maryland, surprised and confused to see his long-divorced parents at his bedside.

"Any time they ever talked on the phone, they always ended up fighting," Salerno said. "They never got along. I saw them there and thought, 'Is this a dream? Am I in hell?' "

This was a hell of a different sort.

Salerno lost his right foot and part of his leg just above the ankle. He had months of physical rehabilitation in front of him. And the symptoms of his brain injury still linger, an invisible wound as debilitating as any other. He struggles with his short-term memory.

With his mother a Tampa Bay resident, Salerno was offered the chance to recover at the James A. Haley VA Medical Center's polytrauma unit in Tampa. He was discharged from the hospital in March 2011. But he still receives frequent care at Haley.

Salerno said the excellent care he received at the veterans hospital helped him begin the next stage of his life. He met a physical therapist there and soon decided on a vocation.

Salerno's now studying physical therapy at St. Petersburg College with hopes of eventually entering the doctoral physical therapy program at the University of South Florida.

Salerno wants eventually to work at Haley.

"I want to help wounded soldiers," he said. "I think I would be good at it. If someone tells me they can't do something, I'll be able to tell them, 'I did it. You can, too.' "

Living with his mother in Palm Harbor, Salerno has faced a 45-minute drive for his frequent appointments at Haley. Now he's in a home just a 10-minute drive from the hospital. His fiancee had been living with her parents in Tarpon Springs.

After move-in day Thursday, the couple will share a home for the first time. And Breedlove just recently learned she is pregnant, so the home provides a renewed sense of security about their future.

"Life's been kind of rough," Salerno said. "But everything is starting to fall into place now."

Life may also get much more interesting for Tristan. The couple are considering getting a Christmas puppy for the boy.

Tristan can play with the dog in his new back yard.

William R. Levesque can be reached at levesque@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3432.

Wounded veteran gets mortgage-free home in Tampa 10/31/12 [Last modified: Thursday, November 1, 2012 12:09am]

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