FORT BENNING, Ga. -- Soldiers, veterans and members of the Columbus-area community came together Jan. 21 to honor wounded veteran Sgt. 1st Class Michael Schlitz during a groundbreaking ceremony for his new home in Fortson, Ga.
Schlitz was wounded in Baghdad in 2007 when the vehicle he and his team were driving was destroyed by an IED.
Schlitz was thrown from the truck and his entire body was set on fire. As a result, the explosion that killed three other Soldiers also caused Schlitz to sustain burns over 85 percent of his body, lose both hands and his eyesight in his left eye.
With Schlitz's unique needs, he requires a unique home. That's where the Building for America's Bravest program came in.
The program, a joint effort of the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation and the Gary Sinise Foundation, is intended to provide wounded and disabled veterans with homes that can help bring a sense of normalcy back into their lives.
That is accomplished by incorporating technology into the house, allowing Schlitz and other veterans to have increased control over their "smart homes."
"Mike's space will have most of his living quarters on the first floor to make it easily accessible," said Terrence Tierney, the managing director of Building for America's Bravest. "It'll have wide hallways, wide doors. The whole house will be automated to be controlled by an iPad. The lighting, the doorways, accessible cabinets in the kitchen, anything that helps him get around, he'll be able to do that by his iPad. His entertainment system, his music, all the works. It's a high-tech house… It's got a lot of smart technology in it. It's got a lot of accessibility features that you don't see in normal homes."
Schlitz said the home is going to be a life-changer for him.
"What this house is going to do is provide me a new level of independence to be able to do the things I can't necessarily do right this moment," Schlitz said. "Once I get into this house, it is immediately going to change my life. For me, it's great because I'm going to have that overnight change.
In addition to providing for Schlitz's needs, the home will also provide his mother, Robbie, with an increased sense of freedom.
Robbie Schlitz is her son's full-time caretaker, but the new home will incorporate her own separate living area, providing both mother and son with a feeling of independence.
"She really has witnessed me going through a whole new change," Michael Schlitz said. "This is going to propel that even more. She's going to be able to take some time for herself and not worry about whether she has to come turn on the water for me or come take care of something. It's going to allow me to be able to do that, and hopefully free up some time for her to take on her own projects and her hobbies again and elevate her quality of life, just as this house is going to do for me."
As part of the program, Schlitz was able to choose anywhere in the country for the location of his new home, and he selected the Columbus area.
"I don't think a lot of people know everything that Columbus has to offer," Schlitz said. "It's a great community. They've done a great job of cleaning it up, and it's close to Fort Benning, so it has a great veteran community. There's a lot of great businesses here, so it's just a great opportunity for me."
The home, like all homes built by Building for America's Bravest, is dependent on public support to fund the construction.
"One hundred percent of the program is funded through the generosity of the American public," Tierney said. "We can't do this without them. The project is community-based, so we're looking for the communities of Columbus, Fortson and Harris County and the surrounding area here to help support us with labor and materials, and then we'll do some fundraising as well."
The program plans to complete 60 smart homes for disabled veterans by the 15th anniversary of Sept. 11.
As that effort moves forward, Schlitz plans to be a part of it.
"What it really comes down to is how blessed I feel, and hopefully in the future, I can keep pushing out support for the other guys who need it," Schlitz said. "I want to get out there and continue speaking and raising awareness, and help get as many guys into homes as I can."