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  1. Hillsborough

Navy veterans to receive mortgage-free house in Riverview

Construction begins Wednesday on a home for Jerry and Jeaniel Whatts and their family. [Photo courtesy Laura Burns]
Construction begins Wednesday on a home for Jerry and Jeaniel Whatts and their family. [Photo courtesy Laura Burns]
Published Jul. 3, 2019

Owning a home was something Navy veterans Jerry and Jeaniel Whatts had always hoped to achieve, but never knew when it would be a reality.

They never expected their lives would change so drastically as when they found out they would receive a mortgage-free new home in Riverview. Construction begins on Wednesday.

Navy veterans Jerry and Jeaniel Whatts never expected their lives would change so immensely as they anticipate will happen Wednesday, when ground breaks on a new home in Riverview they will receive, mortgage-free.

Jerry Whatts, who served for eight years and like his wife was deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, was searching online and came upon Operation Homefront, that was giving away a brand new house built by PulteGroup's Built to Honor program.

He didn't think they stood much of a chance, but applied anyway. The application asked for ties to the community, so he mentioned the nonprofit veterans group, The Mission Continues, that he and his wife are involved with that addresses food insecurity and homelessness.

They got a call back for an interview. Then, they got the four-bedroom house.

"It's still overwhelming," Jeaniel said. "It's really going to change our family history. Even my own parents don't own a home."

The family will be responsible for paying property taxes. Operation Homefront will provide caseworkers to help with financial planning and improving their credit scores. The deed will be transferred into their name after they complete the financial counseling process.

Operation Homefront has transferred deeds to more than 550 veteran families across the country since the program started in 2012, and PulteGroup's Built to Honor program has built more than 50 homes since it began in 2013.

Jerry said he now feels immense relief in his ability to provide for his four kids, the youngest just a month old. Now, he said, they can think about summer camps and tutoring services. The oldest, who is 14, will have room to practice football.

When he left the military in 2007, Jerry went from getting a steady paycheck to earning about $10,000 a year. The family moved from San Diego to New Tampa and later Carrollwood, thinking the cost of living would be more affordable. They thought about buying a home, but it was always on the back burner.

"We struggled a ton," Jerry said. "I know a lot of veterans besides myself, you leave empty with no purpose."

The transition to civilian life, he said, was not easy. Initially he moved from job to job, not sure why he couldn't keep one.

"I was always afraid to say something was seriously wrong with me because I was afraid they'd take the kids away from me," he said.

Jeaniel, who is now in active reserves, was deployed to Kuwait, three months after the birth of their third child in 2009. Jerry began having full blown panic attacks. He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. That's when he first learned to ask for help.

Jeaniel said she wishes more veterans knew when to reach out.

"It doesn't make you less of a person to ask for help," she said. "You should ask for help."

Jeaniel first got involved in The Mission Continues through a six-month fellowship and encouraged her husband to do the same. They worked with veterans in the community in even greater need.

Joining, Jerry said, was the first step in his own healing, he said.

"It gave me a sense of purpose again, along with my kids," he said. He is now platoon leader of the Tampa chapter and has worked at Enterprise Rent-A-Car for the last eight years.

Construction on the house, located in the Ventana community built by Pulte, is expected to be completed by Thanksgiving.

"It's going to finally give my kids a place to call home," Jerry said.

Contact Divya Kumar at dkumar@tampabay.com or . Follow @divyadivyadivya.

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