I remember the day vividly. Over and over, I watched as the planes hit. First, One World Trade, followed shortly by Tower Two. Everyone in America—arguably everyone in the world—remembers where we were and what we were doing on that day. I was only 12, but I can recount the hours, minute to minute, as my family and I tried to piece together the events and waited anxiously to hear how family and friends were. We knew people who worked in those towers. But we knew nothing more.

The only thing we did know for sure: retaliation from the United States was imminent.

War, whether officially declared or not, has always been a controversial political issue. However, during the days following September 11th 2001, the blood of every American boiled. We all wanted swift and deliberate revenge.

Screen Shot 2017-04-03 at 9.05.33 AM Screen Shot 2017-04-03 at 9.05.41 AMYet as we look back on the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, questions such as where our troops should have been, for how long, what they accomplished, whether it was all worth it, and when they should all return home are now matters of contentious debate. One thing does remain crystal clear and undisputed among those who call themselves patriots: the respect and admiration we have for the soldiers who have served, and continue to serve.

I was recently at a golf outing hosted by a newly formed foundation called Homes Fit for Heroes. It is their mission to provide wounded special operations soldiers and their families a home while the soldiers undergo rehabilitation treatments for their injuries suffered overseas protecting all of us.

Seeking to know more about this admirable organization, I reached out to its cofounders, Sam and Larry Raia. A few weeks later, we all sat down for a conversation about Homes Fit for Heroes.

It wasn’t long before September 11th came up.

“September 11th hit our area particularly hard. I had attended multiple funerals for friends and family acquaintances, including a close friend of mine from high school and later college. He perished in the World Trade Center,” recalled Sam Raia. Feeling vulnerable and helpless, he thought of alleviating his sense of impotence by joining the military, but his wife and a newborn at home, reluctantly convinced him otherwise. At first, he couldn’t shake the feeling that he just hadn’t done his part. What never left him, though, was the determination that even if he couldn’t fight the fight, he was still going to somehow lend his hand and his heart to the cause.

It took years, but a plan began to take shape that would help to give back to those who so bravely did answer the call to fight. It all clicked one day after Sam and his cousin Larry both read Lone Survivor. It is the story of Marcus Luttrell, who was the lone survivor of his S.E.A.L. special operations team in Afghanistan. Following an ambush, he was left alive, but deeply wounded. Learning about Luttrell’s ordeal inspired the two cousins to hatch up an idea.

Having extensive knowledge of real estate through their careers at Raia Properties, a real estate development firm, Sam and Larry sought to solve a big issue with injured veterans returning from the war-torn Middle East. These soldiers, many of whom were victims of roadside IEDs (improvised explosive devices), were coming back to the main military rehab facilities—the Center for the Intrepid, located in San Antonio Texas, and Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, now located in Bethesda, Maryland, on the outskirts of Washington, D.C.

Unfortunately, however, their homes and, more importantly, their families, rarely lived near those rehab facilities. With most returning veterans needing long recovery times—usually around a year and a half—housing their families nearby posed a huge financial burden.

Enter Sam and Larry, and their foundation. Homes Fit For Heroes makes it possible to reunite these special operations soldiers with their families when they need each other the most.

When asked why they only focus on special operations, the pair was decisive in their multiple-reason explanation.

Upon the return of a wounded veteran, the army does provide housing for injured units near the facilities where they are receiving treatment. However, those spaces are very small, one-bedroom homes; fine for one person, but impossible for a family to stay in.

“Housing is pretty bare,” says Sam, who also explains that the military does not cover hotel expenses or other accommodations that allow the returning soldier to be with his family, something Sam and Larry see as detrimental to the recovery of these brave and wounded men.

Oftentimes military personnel returning from conflict are young and without a newly formed family. However, the average age of special operations soldiers returning home is 31, and they usually have a wife and young kids waiting to greet them.

And, as illustrated by Marcus Luttrell’s story, special operations units are often the first ones thrust into conflict, and the last to be pulled out. They are the spearhead of the United States military, and charged with the task of carrying out the most specific missions in the most dangerous of places. You know, the ones who raided Osama Bin Laden’s home. Those guys.

Lastly, as any fledgling charity knows, resources are limited. As much as they want to help every injured soldier returning home, it’s simply not possible… at least not yet.

Presently, Homes Fit for Heroes is providing housing for about 25 returning special operations veterans. Many are recovering from brutal IED attacks; some are learning to adjust to life without a limb.

The foundation offers these veterans and their families two- or three-bedroom apartments. They are large, handicap-accessible units where a soldier’s family can live while the husband, wife, mother or father, receive the treatments that will allow them to acclimate back into civilian life, or even return to military duty.

The housing developments are often newer properties, and Homes Fit for Heroes also provides any necessary living items, such as linens and pots and pans. Two or three soldiers and their families are often all that will live in a community together.

“After being on a base these soldiers want to go back to a non-military community,” notes Larry. “They need to regain some sense of normality. So do their wives and children.”

Although these wounded soldiers can and do socialize with each other, they are also able to gain a sense of civilian community by socializing with others who have no military past or involvement.

Getting to this stage took some doing. When Sam and Larry first reached out to the United States Special Operations Command (SOCOM) Care Coalition, which is the military’s main special operations recovery program, the Care Coalition was hesitant about Sam and Larry’s proposal to house their troops. “They feared we were trying to profit from their wounded,” Sam said. After assuring and proving, that this was not the case, they began a working partnership.

The SOCOM Care Coalition screens potential benefactors for the program. With an understanding of the soldier’s needs, they will carefully analyze each soldier’s circumstances, and determine whether they are a fit for the program. Homes Fit for Heroes then takes it from there.

Sam and Larry know that even though they are able to house these returning war heroes, these brave men and women still need so much more. Each year, the Care Coalition holds an event that brings many different organizations together, including Homes Fit for Heroes. The purpose is simple: The many organizations are able to network, allowing for each organization’s strengths to be utilized in providing the best care possible for these special operations soldiers. For instance, Homes Fit for Heroes will work with the Green Beret Foundation, an organization dedicated to helping wounded special operations units financially, or even with educational scholarships to help advance their lives after the army. Another organization, the Athlete’s Performance Institute, can help rehabilitate the wounded to such an extent that they could once again be combat ready. This same group has been known to train some of the best athletes in the NBA and NFL. Homes Fit for Heroes helps facilitate the conversation that will get their participants the specific help they need.

Sam and Larry’s bond with these incredible American veterans now reaches deep. They have helped about 75 soldiers when they needed it most, upon their return from war, battling unimaginable injuries. Larry and Sam have gotten to know each and every one of the soldiers in their program.

“Their kids know our kids. These people are now lifelong friends,” says Larry in describing the deep bond he and Sam have formed with these veterans they so respect and appreciate.

When Homes Fit for Heroes has an event around Bergen County, the cousins will often invite five to ten of the soldiers and their families, flying them up from San Antonio, or one of the many other areas throughout the country where they are providing homes.

While their resources are not limitless, Sam and Larry are proud of the fact that Homes Fit for Heroes has never asked a soldier to move out of their housing units. The decision to move out is solely in the hands of the wounded veteran.

Sam and Larry once had the honor of meeting a former Deputy of Defense, who gave them a small dose of reality. He said, “Americans think they are patriotic today by purchasing a magnet and sticking it on their bumper.”

Patriotic fervor often occurs in the midst of a tragedy, yet dissipates soon after, the pair notes.

“A wounded soldier returning from war can feel pretty alone and helpless,” says Sam. He tells the story of one soldier, who in conversation with him and Larry said, “Does the country I fought for care about me?”

That soldier soon got the answer and help he needed from Homes Fit for Heroes. He has now successfully moved out of the program, and thanks to Homes Fit for Heroes, he once again is “filled with optimism because our country feels my sacrifice”. The soldier, who still keeps in touch with Sam and Larry, has even started his own foundation to help those who return home.

While at that event, I had the honor of meeting some of the brave men and women who are part of the Homes Fit for Heroes program. They are smiling, enjoying every minute. They sit, eating their cheeseburgers, excited for the day, already setting wagers on who would have the lowest golf score. Everything about these veterans seems normal, until you look down and see their prosthetic leg, and immediately begin to feel a mix of anger, guilt and sympathy about what happened to this man while he was protecting us. Then you speak to him. He is proud. He is not the least bit regretful. He doesn’t make you feel the slightest bit guilty, and makes it clear that, if given the choice, he would sign up to defend his country again.

Fast forward to just this past February. General Raymond A. Thomas III, Commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command, awarded Larry and Sam the Patriot Award, a prestigious civilian honor for their incredible work with our military, and more specifically, our returning special forces.

We don’t often get to meet these soldiers face to face and gain an understanding of the events that have shaped their lives. That is where it becomes so easy to forget about them. But Larry and Sam Raia, two truly unique men with an unquestionable love for their country, surely will never forget them. Neither should you.

Written by Brandon Goldstein  

 For more information on how you can help, contact Homes Fit for Heroes at Homesfitforheroes.net or (901) 762-6795. And be sure to ask about the Spring fundraiser Homes Fit For Heroes will hold on April 26, 3-7PM, at Hartly in Westwood. LaViano’s will also be participating in the event.