An injury that paralyzed Air Force Master Sgt. Francis “Frankie” Reilly’s right leg 19 years ago unexpectedly brought him the luckiest break of his life. Now retired, his lifelong dream of a home of his own is coming true.
The change in fortune was delivered by national homebuilder PulteGroup and the nonprofit Building Homes for Heroes, said Brent Baker, president of PulteGroup’s southeast Florida division. PulteGroup is building him a four-bedroom home in Heron Preserve, the company’s new development in Tradition.
“This is the biggest life change I have ever had,” Reilly said. “The emotions I felt when I found out we were getting a home were on a pace with the birth of my children. It renews my hope in the American people, that they can still get together and help someone.”
Born into a military family, Reilly, 48, moved with them until he turned 18 and joined the Air Force in 1994. Then he continued to move to wherever he was sent. He got married, raised three kids with his wife, Heather, and when he retired from his military career, set about trying to make his dream of a home come true. But it was a rocky road with one setback after another and inflation making it even harder.
“I wanted for the entire time in the military to have a home where we could build memories,” he said. “I never had a home of my own.”
Their new four-bedroom home with three baths and a two-car garage features a room that will be filled with the special exercise equipment he needs to continue his rehab. He spends six hours a day at it. Outside, he will have a pool, an ice bath for cold therapy to reduce inflammation, and a hot tub for his heat therapy. The specially customized design eliminated door sills and made the shower entrance free of a sill that he might stumble over. The backyard overlooks a preserve, offering privacy and a scenic view.
Brent Baker said PulteGroup surprised Reilly by asking him to come for an interview about his application to be considered for a new home.
“He had no idea we had already decided,” Baker said. When Reilly recovered from the surprise, Baker said Reilly told them, “This has been the surprise of a lifetime. We are so incredibly grateful to everyone for making this happen. It is absolutely a dream come true.”
Reilly lost the use of his right leg in late 2004 when he parachuted out of a plane with trainees over Arizona. He had just come back from his third deployment to Afghanistan where he had been on a combat search and rescue mission involving a crash that had killed one of his teammates and seriously injured another. “I was on the pickup bird,” he said.
Returning to the base in Arizona, he was asked to train new men in parachute jumping. He said he wasn’t ready to train new members but they told him to go anyway. He jumped from a C-130 plane, the parachute caught his leg, and it twisted and dislocated his knee, tearing apart the tendons, nerves and muscles. They managed to put his leg back together but it was permanently paralyzed below the knee. Five surgeries followed, including an attempted nerve transplant, with minimal success.
“I couldn’t walk for years,” he said. But, he stuck fiercely to his rehabilitation work and could finally walk with crutches. Today, he walks with a brace that holds his right foot up because his nerves’ messages can no longer get through to the muscles that should lift his foot. He also suffers from PTSD from his rescue missions and traumatic brain injury from the times he hit his head while in service.
“Part of my transition to civilian life was to get into sports,” he said. “Now I compete in Paralympics cycling.”
The cycling makes rehabilitation even more important. He uses an upright bike as opposed to a tricycle or hand-cycle bike. He had been in physical therapy for 10 years but credits cycling with finally restoring his ability to walk. He goes on four or five trips a year to major sporting events and is a four-time Florida State Time Trial champion. His new home with all the special features will make it far easier to keep up with his rehab.
“My wife and children had to move often with me, they made sacrifices, and now I want them to have their own place to call home, a place where they have a stable home that they can always come back to and after I die my wife will have a home,” he said
PulteGroup has been building and giving away homes through its Built to Honor program for 10 years and has built more than 80 homes for veterans nationwide. The home for Reilly is the 13th the company has done in Florida, Baker said. The company works with nonprofits such as Building Homes for Heroes to find candidates for the homes.
Reilly said he was urged to apply by a fellow veteran who had been severely injured.
“He said, ‘Dude, you have to apply!’ I kept telling him no but he insisted, so I did. And I was accepted. This is like the hand of God reached down to help us.”
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