Gary Sinise Foundation to build ‘smart home’ for Florida veteran

When Stefan LeRoy leaves his Jupiter apartment, the retired Army sergeant says he has to adapt on a daily basis to the outside world.

Even when he’s home, it can be a struggle for this vet who lost his legs in 2012 when an improvised explosive device went off while he carried an injured friend in Afghanistan.

He recently smacked his head on a counter while reaching from his wheelchair, and he’s dinged up “pretty much all the doors and walls” maneuvering the apartment’s tight corners in his wheelchair, LeRoy said.

LeRoy and his wife, Katie, expect that to change when they move into their new home: a “specially adapted smart home” in Abacoa donated by the Gary Sinise Foundation and its team of partners. “I can be myself inside the home and when I go outside I’ll adapt to the rest of the world,” said LeRoy.

LeRoy, 28, said he had a desire to join the military even in childhood. Originally from Santa Rosa, California, LeRoy took part in the ROTC program at Cal Poly before enlisting in the Army in 2010, according to his biography on the foundation website. The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks factored into that motivation to enlist, he said.

“I think that was one of my goals … to stop it from happening in America,” said LeRoy.

The Gary Sinise Foundation has provided more than 50 houses to those who have served in the military, including many who are amputees, foundation representative Chris Kuban said. The goal is to give those veterans, who are selected from an applicant list, independence and dignity, he said.

The foundation has already purchased the property, LeRoy said. When the three-bedroom house is finished — LeRoy hopes to move in before November — it will be a “mortgage-free home,” Kuban said.

The house in Abacoa will feature features designed to meet LeRoy’s needs, including iPad-controlled lights, wider hallways, a transfer bench in the shower and a contraption to help him reach items in kitchen cabinets, Kuban said.

There will even be a button for the family’s service dog, a 5-year-old golden retriever and yellow Labrador mix named Knoxville, to open a door between the garage and the rest of the house, Katie LeRoy said.

The will meet LeRoy’s needs now and in the future, Kuban said. That’s key for LeRoy, who said he’s “pretty active” at this stage in his life, but acknowledged that he may face more limitations as he ages.

For now, LeRoy said he is focused on the near-term, because the family’s first child, Finnleigh, was born Wednesday. LeRoy looks forward to having enough space to turn around his wheelchair in the bathroom, where he can give his daughter baths.

“To be present and participate in raising my daughter, I think that’s the biggest part,” LeRoy said.

LeRoy and his wife said they also had Finnleigh’s interest in mind when choosing the house’s location. They want her to grow up in a tight-knit community. LeRoy said he already knows a next-door neighbor.

Abacoa also makes sense from a practical standpoint, LeRoy said, because the area’s concrete paths will make it easier when he’s out running or hand-cycling, LeRoy said.

LeRoy has been active in both sports in the years since his injury. LeRoy said he first hand-cycled about a month after his initial surgeries at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

“It was great to have an outlet because I easily could’ve just sat around and drank and felt sorry for myself,” LeRoy said. “But instead I went to adaptive sports.”

What started as a way to stay positive and active has since grown into a passion. LeRoy has competed in the Boston Marathon six times, twice as a hand-cyclist and four times running. He’s also taken part in two Invictus Games, an international competition for injured military personnel and veterans.

Sporting brought him and Katie together. They met when she volunteered at a cycling program at Walter Reed in 2014.

The couple moved to Jupiter about four years ago, partly to be close to Katie’s best friend. Both hope this next move will be their last.

“We may never move,” LeRoy said, as his wife quickly added, “That’s the plan. One more move, that’s it.”

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© 2019 The Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville, Fla.)

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