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Volunteers make sure home is fit for a hero

The Baltimore Sun

Army Spc. Ryan Major is almost home.

After extensive surgeries and six months of treatment for life-threatening injuries he suffered in Iraq, the 2003 Towson High School graduate is about a month away from moving into his mother's house.

But there's one thing still in the way of his homecoming: the stairs.

Yesterday, a group of volunteers worked to retrofit the home for his return. That project includes an elevator - Major will not have to be carried up the flight of steps from the garage to the first floor, as he has on his weekend visits home.

Of the prospect of returning home for good, he simply says: "I can't wait."

Major, 22, was injured in November on his second tour of duty as a squad leader in Ramadi, a city west of Bagdad. He was critically wounded while on foot patrol when an improvised explosive device went off near his squad.

Major lost both legs and suffered serious injuries to his arms, as well as internal injuries. In January, shortly after his return to Maryland, some of his Towson friends held a bull roast to raise money for his expenses. He is now recovering at the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Washington and uses a wheelchair.

His mother, Lorrie Knight-Major, knew that changes would need to be made to her small house to make it livable for her son. In April she heard about Rebuilding Together, an organization that provides free construction and home repairs for elderly, disabled and low-income homeowners, and contacted them.

A week after that phone call, the group committed to renovating the house, Knight-Major said.

The house was accepted as the first project for Rebuilding Together's Heroes at Home program, an initiative to help military veterans and their families by making necessary repairs and renovations to their homes. The program is funded by donations from customers at Sears and Kmart stores.

Local contractors have been working for about six weeks, installing the elevator and converting a downstairs family room into Major's new bedroom and bathroom. The labor and about 90 percent of the materials were donated, said David Merrick, a contractor who volunteered to oversee the project for Rebuilding Together.

The organization worked with Major, his family and his physical and occupational therapists on the renovations to make sure that he got what he needed.

"We would design it, and then the engineers would come through and redesign it again," Merrick said.

Yesterday, with most of the major construction complete, volunteers painted walls, did yardwork and extended the deck at the back of the house to be accessible to Major's new bedroom.

"I love what they are doing," Mary Merrick, the contractor's sister and a volunteer on the project, said as she painted the bedroom walls. "I think it's a wonderful project."

Many of the volunteers were Sears employees. The retail chain has been collecting donations from customers since Memorial Day, and employees were given the opportunity to participate.

"It's a great thing," said Gary Winn, a maintenance technician who was working on the deck. "It helps out someone in need."

Some of Major's friends joined other volunteers doing landscaping at the front of the house.

"We wouldn't be gardening if it weren't for Ryan," said Jennifer Feeney, 22, who has known Major since high school.

In January, Feeney and several others organized the bull roast and raised thousands of dollars for the Ryan C. Major Foundation. Originally they planned to install a wheelchair ramp to his mother's home, but since Rebuilding Together took over the renovations, the money has been invested to help Major pay his expenses, she said.

The group plans to make the bull roast an annual event and to work with local nonprofit organizations to help other veterans in similar circumstances.

"Ryan constantly says, 'I don't need all this money. Give it to someone else,'" Feeney said.

With about three-fourths of the work done on the house, the contractors plan to be finished by the middle of July. Major should be released from the rehabilitation center at the beginning of August. His friends hope he will be home in time for his birthday Aug. 3.

Major, who faces more surgery and therapy, including learning how to use prosthetic legs, is eager to return to his family.

"I've never seen anyone so excited to go home before," said Feeney. "He's so happy."

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