ETNA – Most people would have been devastated by what Marine Corporal Melroy Cort and his wife, Samantha, have been through.
In 2005, just four months into his first deployment in Iraq, Cort lost both legs, suffered permanent damage to his right hand, a traumatic brain injury and PTSD. Two years ago, he and Samantha, who have 10 children, saw their home destroyed in a fire.
There is a light at the end of the Tunnel, specifically, Tunnel To Towers, for the family. The Stephen Siller Tunnel To Towers Foundation of New York City, named for a firefighter who died saving others during 911, and A Soldier’s Journey Home have teamed up to build a new smart home for the Cort Family near Etna in western Licking County. The home is being dedicated on Saturday, put together from the ground up in just 12 days by firefighters, first responders and veterans from all over the country.
The dedication will be quite a moving moment. “But this has all been a moving moment,” the 36-year-old Cort said. “For people we don’t even know, to have this kind of focus for us, is really amazing. We’ve been planning for the last year, and they really care about what they’re doing. They’ve taken personal time off to do this. They are from at least 12 different states. All of the construction, they refer to it as ‘ants on a cupcake.’ It’s organized chaos, and these guys are great.”
“We schedule 15 of these a year, and normally they take four months to build, not 12 days,” said John Ponte of Staten Island, New York, a Navy veteran and senior director of Tunnel To Towers Foundation. “So there were a lot of challenges to get it done this fast, especially with COVID-19. For example, the local Home Depot had only half of a staff. But COVID didn’t stop us from completing homes in Utah and Montana.”
On a recent night, 85 volunteers, both men and women, came from New York, Texas, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, Arkansas, North Carolina and Louisiana. The 12 days is done because that is the amount of their vacation time, so A Soldier’s Journey Home, based in Tennessee, does just one project a year.
Ponte worked for a smart home business, installing technology. “I thought it could give them (disabled veterans) some independence,” he said. Smart homes have automated doors and lighting, wider hall and doorways, special showers to accommodate wheelchairs, automatic door openers, cabinets, counters, and stove tops that can be raised and lowered, back-up generators, and central heating and air conditioning systems that can be controlled by tablets.
“We even install music,” Ponte said. “We have four zones of audio, and it’s a form of treatment for PTSD. We’ve done 85 homes, for those who lose multiple limbs or are paralyzed. Most of them are 23, 24 or 25 years old, and some of them lost both arms and legs. People don’t think much about their freedom. It’s not a given. These kids sacrificed, and we want to show them our appreciation, for helping to make us free.”
Nothing can deter the volunteers. Not even the coronavirus. “I had it,” Ponte said. “My antibodies tested positive. I lost some taste and smell, but it was not really that bad.” Ponte also had to return to New York City when his mother suffered a heart attack. “This (Ohio) and New York, are two different worlds,” he said.
When the volunteers started on the 4,000-square foot, six-bedroom Cort house on June 1, there was not even a basement wall. “This is the third home I’ve done,” said Britt Bradshaw, a firefighter from Chattanooga, Tennessee who volunteers for A Soldier’s Journey Home. “We have 75 to 100 volunteers here, and this year, it’s a little less because the virus prevented some from coming.” Bradshaw is one of several logistics coordinators, taking care of deliveries and hotel arrangements.
For Joe Bachert, a retired New York City firefighter, this is his fifth home. “It’s not like working,” he said. “As many as I’ve done, I’m amazed at the speed. What I love the most is, we’re alpha males, and everyone has their trades. But they check their ego at the door, and they switch over and do whatever is needed. No task is beneath anyone.”
Bachert said local contacts are important, such as Columbus fireman John Capretta and Tom Barnhill of West Licking Fire Department, which has had several firefighters chip in with the work.
Eric Abney of Slidell, Louisiana also works on logistics, like taking care of tools and filling orders. This is the seventh home he’s worked on, with three in Tennessee and others in Alabama, Chicago and Texas. “It’s really nice to watch all the man hours and work that is put in,” Abney said. “Just the satisfaction of watching it change someone’s life, and being able to give back.”
Abney has been inspired by two events. “We saw what everyone went through with Hurricane Katrina. We saw what everyone went through during 9-11,” he said. “I didn’t lose anything but a car in Katrina, but 75 percent of the guys I worked with lost everything. What’s two weeks of vacation if you can help someone out?”
Mel Cort emigrated from Guyana, in South America, to New York City at age 10, but wound up moving to the Columbus area, where he and Samantha met. He graduated from Reynoldsburg High School and she from Walnut Ridge High School.
After the fire, the family spent a short time in hotels, but much of the two years has been spent with Cort’s mother. The Corts have six girls and four boys, including two sets of twins, and the kids range from ages four months to 11 years old.
Samantha said her kids have been resilient. “They have amazing bounceback,” she said. “They have that glow, and they learn and adjust to things. They have that will, and it keeps us all going. They have a very good attitude. They were already home schooled, so it (COVID-19) was not an adjustment for us.”
She said the kids are obviously excited about the new home. “I’m pretty sure it’s a different adjustment, but you realize, it will just make it a little easier,” she said. “I might be a little overwhelming, but it’s a good overwhelming.”
“Yes, there’s a lot of technology,” Mel said. “It’s nice to get your freedom back to deal with each other, and have your own space. Now, I’ll be able to access everything without being helped. But in another way, it’s back to the basics.”
The Corts had a definite idea of what they wanted when they were planning things out. “Our whole goal is to farm,” Mel said. “To provide for us, and our neighbors. To help anyone in need.”
Samantha said a common thread has been sewn through the family’s ability to overcome adversity. “It’s all in self growth,” she said. “Seeking some kind of growth every day. You have to keep constantly evolving.”
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