There are days when former Marine Sergeant Andrew Litz can’t bear the sounds of his two young children playing in their two-bedroom apartment in suburban Dallas, when his wife, Heather, reminds them that Daddy’s head hurts. But on this October afternoon, the sturdy, intense former soldier is imagining a new life: one of calm connection with his family. Standing in the yard of the brand-new home in Gunter, Texas, that will soon be theirs, he smiles. “This,” he says quietly, “is a place where I can heal.”
More than just bricks and mortar, the house is a safe haven, with five bedrooms and four baths. Since April 20, 2005, when an improvised explosive device in Ramadi, Iraq, killed two of his buddies and left him with a fractured back and neck, traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder, Litz, 32, Heather, 29, and kids Zachary, 8, and Madison, 6, have struggled, often living in various rental properties. Enter Operation Finally Home (operationfinallyhome.org), a nonprofit launched by now-retired builder Dan Wallrath, whose volunteers have built 86 customized homes for wounded vets in 17 states since 2005. “Andrew is a shining example of our heroes,” says Wallrath, 62, whose New Braunfels, Texas-based organization has 44 more houses under construction.
Litz never thought he’d need the help. After 9/11 the then-mechanic joined the Marines. “In the infantry I felt I was where I was supposed to be,” he says. Back home in 2004 he met and married Heather, who fell hard for the outgoing motorcycle enthusiast. “He wrote me love letters, poems,” she says. “We thought we’d never be apart.”
Then tragedy struck. While Litz was on a mission as squad leader, his Humvee struck an IED, shattering concrete and sending shrapnel flying. Initially diagnosed with only a mild concussion, Litz returned to work despite dizziness, vomiting and blackouts. He took leave to deal with a family crisis – Heather, pregnant with their first child, was diagnosed with cancer – but she saw right away that he was different. “It’s as if he wasn’t really there,” she says. After Zachary was born Heather had surgery to remove cervical cancer cells, and 8 months later she was expecting again. “But Andrew was flat, no emotion,” she says. “It was scary.”
He joined the Dallas Police Department after being honorably discharged, but life only got worse. Fireworks sent him hiding in his closet, he turned out the lights and grabbed a gun to protect his family when the mailman knocked, and the noise of his children’s toys caused him blinding migraines. “I was in denial,” he says. Not Heather, who, with his parents, staged an intervention, insisting he get counseling. “The kids would ask, ‘Why is Daddy angry? Why doesn’t he love me?'” Heather says. “We had to mourn the loss of the person who went off to war and move on.” Says Andrew: “I didn’t want to lose my family, so I had to get help.”
Now retired from the police department, Litz says, “It’s hard not to be out supporting my family, but the doctors say I can’t work.” Yet he and his family have hope—inspired by the home that will give them a fresh start. “I’ll play ball in the backyard,” says Zachary. “We won’t have to be quiet as much for Daddy,” Madison says. Litz is awed by what Wallrath has done. “It’s beautiful here, and it’s our home,” Litz says. “I’m so grateful.”