John Laursen, an Army veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and his wife Casey have spent about a year handling his recovery after being medically evacuated from Afghanistan, but they are able to begin moving forward, with the first steps being across the threshold of their new home in Harford County Wednesday.
The Laursens and their dog, a Labrador mix named Bailey, will live in a mortgage-free condominium in Joppatowne, which they obtained through the nonprofit organization Operation Homefront.
Wells Fargo owns the property, and the San Francisco-based banking firm, one of the largest in the nation, donated it to Operation Homefront.
The property donation is part of a commitment by Wells Fargo to donate $30 million worth of property to veterans and their families; the financial institution committed $35 million over three years to assist veterans beginning in 2012.
The Laursens moved into the condominium, in the 500 block of Cider Press Court, Wednesday morning.
As part of the "key ceremony," they received a surprise greeting from representatives of Operation Homefront, as well as family members they have not seen in a year, including Casey's older sister, Stephanie Young, her mother Cindy Young and grandmother Kathy Hallsworth, all of Watertown, N.Y.
The couple had been living in an apartment in Woodbridge, Va., since July 2013 as John recovered at Ft. Belvoir Community Hospital from injuries sustained in Afghanistan that year.
"It's been such a huge relief," Casey, 23, said. "I finally feel like something's going right for us, and I'm so thankful."
Hallsworth called the acquisition of the house a "new beginning" for the Laursens.
Lisa Yambrick of Crofton, a friend of John and the director of fundraising and publicity for USA Warriors Ice Hockey, also attended Wednesday's key ceremony.
John, 26, is a member of the team, which is made up of wounded veterans living in the Baltimore and Washington, D.C., regions.
"This is going to be a huge peace of mind for them and a chance to breathe," Yambrick said.
She said John calls her the "team mom" for the hockey team.
"So that's why I'm here," she said. "I love these guys."
Casey said she was "speechless" upon seeing her family.
"I've been dying to go see them," she said. "I've been begging John to take me back home, so I'm awed that they came up for me – for us."
Casey said it had been about a six-month process to find a home through Operation Homefront.
John said he was medically retired from the Army in March after six years of service – he was dealing with a "rare disease" affecting his esophagus and a traumatic brain injury, according to a biography provided by Operation Homefront.
He supervised and drove wheeled vehicles and attained the rank of specialist, according to the biography.
He said he went through "kind of a panic, to see what's next" when he learned he would be leaving the Army.
The Brick, N.J., native said he was referred to Operation Homefront by a friend who also received a home through the organization.
He said they regularly checked Operation Homefront's listings, and they wanted to live in Maryland.
Casey is an "assistant aide" at a Montessori school and plans to become a teacher, according to the biography.
"My wife and I want to stay in the area, so as soon as we saw it, we knew it was the one for us," John said of the condo.
John said "words can't express how grateful we are for everything" from Operation Homefront and Wells Fargo. He said the home will "give us that foundation of starting the civilian life again."
John said he has accepted a civilian administrative position with the Army at Aberdeen Proving Ground, and he is studying emergency management at University of Maryland University College.
"It's a real good stepping stone for us to start getting things back to where they need to be," he said of the mortgage-free home.
Operation Homefront, which is based in San Antonio, Texas, provides an array of services to veterans, such as assistance with finances, housing and food.
The mortgage-free housing is provided through Operation Homefront's Homes on the Homefront initiative. The organization partners with financial institutions such as Wells Fargo to obtain the properties.
The banks donate the properties to Operation Homefront, which owns the home for about a year to two years as Homefront staffers work with the veterans and their families to ensure they are stable homeowners, Tom Greer, vice president of communications and outreach, explained.
He said an Operation Homefront committee determines after that period if they meet the organization's criteria for homeownership, and if so, the family receives the deed to the property "free and clear."
Greer said more than 300 veterans and their families have been placed in homes, including at least five in Maryland.
Janette Soliz, a caseworker with Operation Homefront, said the veterans are not responsible for the mortgage, but they must cover other costs such as taxes, fees and maintenance.
"Although it's a mortgage-free home, it's not a cost free home," she said.
Veronica Clemons, a spokeswoman for Wells Fargo, said the homes that are donated are part of the bank's real estate-owned portfolio, or REO; the properties become part of REO through foreclosure or "deed in lieu," meaning the homeowner signs the deed over to the bank as an alternative to foreclosure.
"The mortgage is gone because we've foreclosed, so we'll bring the property into the REO process, repair it and sell it to recover a portion of the unpaid loan balance," Tyler Smith, a vice president with Wells Fargo Home Mortgage, explained.
Smith said any unpaid mortgage balance "is a complete loss" when Wells Fargo donates a property, however.
"We're donating $30 million to veterans in the form of bank-owned homes, and that will cost us $30 million," he said.
Wells Fargo became one of the largest banks in the nation following the housing market crash of 2008 and its subsequent acquisition of Wachovia Bank later that year.
Wells Fargo also received $25 billion worth of assistance from the federal government's Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP, which the government set up to help stabilize banks.