Life changed in a big way for Marine Lance Cpl. Joseph Woodke on Saturday when, after a brief ceremony, he received the keys to a house built especially for him through Homes for Our Troops.
With lights flashing and sirens blaring, Woodke, a double amputee, was escorted to his home by Williamson County Sheriff Dusty Rhoades and Chief Deputy Mark Elrod, members of the Franklin Fire Department and Williamson County Fire & Rescue Station 19 in Arrington.
Upon his arrival, Woodke received a warm welcome from representatives of Homes for Our Troops, builder Dan Moorehouse of Hallmark Building Group, project manager Donelle Nelson and some very special friends.
Homes for Our Troops is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to build specially adapted custom homes for severely injured post-9/11 veterans at no cost to the veteran.
Since 2004, HFOT has built more than 295 specially adapted homes throughout 42 states with 74 homes now in different stages of construction. Ten HFOT homes are in Tennessee, three of them in Williamson County
“We don’t see (this organization) as a charity,” said retired Brig Gen. Tom Landwermeyer, who is president and CEO of the organization. “It’s a moral operation. A payback for a debt that can never be repaid. ... Our country owes it to them to help them rebuild their lives.”
HFOT homes have more than 40 adaptations, including wider halls and doorways, automatic door openers, roll-under sinks, stove tops and counters, a roll-in shower with digital temperature control and more to provide the veteran with independence and take pressure off a spouse or caregiver.
“These adaptations allow the veterans to get along rebuilding their lives, enjoy successes and get over hurdles,” Landwermeyer added. “A home should be a place of respite, not added stress.”
For veterans such as Woodke and friends Lance Cpl. Ben Maenza, a Brentwood native who was severely injured in 2010 and received his HFOT house in 2013 and Lance Cpl. John Curtin, who was severely injured in Afghanistan and received a home in 2019, their homes mean independence and security.
“Once I got into my house, I was able to focus on what I wanted to do with my life,” he said.
Maenza was able to go to college and find a vocation. He met someone special, got married and now they have two sons.
“The future and dreams become more of a reality when you have a place you can plant a seed,” Maenza said. “I love this community. Thanks for the support. You have changed my life.”
Woodke was in his second deployment when he lost both legs above the knee. It was on March 29, 2011, in Sangin, Afghanistan, about four months shy of his 21st birthday.
Woodke was attached to the 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines, 26th MEU (Marine Expedition Unit). Sangin had become “a violent combat area” and the 26th MEU was called up to help.
“It was early in the morning and we were doing a raid,” Woodke said. “We were moving in on the Taliban in the central village. I stepped on an IED composite plate.”
After three months in intensive care and a year of rehabilitation, he was finally released and returned home to Port Hope, Michigan, a small community near Lake Huron, and the family farm where he grew up.
Port Hope is a place where everyone knows everyone, he said. It’s so small, Woodke was one of only 14 in his 2007 graduating class. In school, he played basketball, baseball, ran track and worked the family farm.
Woodke joined the Marines eight months after he graduated from high school.
“I went to college, but I only lasted two weeks,” he said. “I told my mom I would give it a try, but it wasn’t for me.”
He had his own plan, which was to join the military. After talking with a few recruiters, he chose the Marines, because “they were the best.”
Port Hope was just where he needed to be to continue healing.
“I worked on the farm with my dad and grandfather until I was mentally able to return to the world,” he said “My family was my support system.”
Woodke remained with his family for a couple of years until one cold, icy, winter day he fell.
“My dad said, ‘You need to get out of Michigan,’” he said.
Since Maenza and Curtin, who he met while in the hospital, and a couple other guys he served with were living in Tennessee, that seemed to be the place to go.
“I decided to move here,” he said.
It took Woodke five years to find the right piece of land and get his house built, but standing in his kitchen and gazing at his property, surrounded by unpacked boxes and pieces of furniture ready to be planted, he feels at home. During the five-year wait, Woodke went back to college and received a degree in business. He also joined Curtin and Maenza on the Predators sled hockey team. Neither were in his plans out of high school, but plans change.
“Nashville has arguably the best team in the country,” he proudly said.
Arguably, he said, because the coronavirus cancelled the playoffs.
Woodke was chosen to be on the U.S. National sled hockey team last year. His goal is to play in the Paralympic winter games in 2022.