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'Smart' house gives war vet more independence

CHANCELLORSVILLE, Va. — Marine Corps Sgt. John Peck, who lost all four limbs in 2010 after stepping on an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan while clearing the way for his unit, received the keys to a $450,000 "smart" house at the Estates of Chancellorsville during a Veterans Day ceremony Monday.

"This means a lot," he said during a ceremony in front of his new home attended by about 150.

Kristen Pruitt, co-owner of American Heritage Homes--which constructed what she's called a "very custom" house--handed him the keys.

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"Thank you to everyone," Peck said. "Thank you doesn't go far enough. I will never forget this."

He insisted he is not a hero. "I find the people who do not come back to be the heroes," he said.

This was an especially meaningful Veterans Day, he said, because "not only is it the beginning of my new life," 55 more veterans also will get new homes soon.

John Hodge, director of operations for the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation, said the organization is teaming up with the Gary Sinise Foundation to build similar houses for veterans--five for quadruple amputees and 50 for triple amputees. The partnership is called Building for America's Bravest.

Sinise is the actor who played Lt. Dan in "Forrest Gump."

"I can't imagine the kind of courage, the kind of honor, the kind of valor Sgt. Peck possesses," Hodge said.

Peck's home is specifically designed so the 27-year-old can live with a degree of independence he hasn't experienced in two years.

Because he retained more of his left arm, for example, features such as faucets are placed so he can easily reach them. He is also aided by the various electronic features that are activated by the push of a button or a touch on his iPad.

Other aspects are typical of universal design, such as a roll-under range, and roll-in shower. There are no steps or other barriers in the house.

Contributing money for the house were the Semper Fi Fund, Hope for Warriors and a grant from the VA Administration. Helping to get Peck settled in were Bassett Furniture and Hilldrup Moving & Storage.

Peck has twice been awarded the Purple Heart.

In 2008, Peck received the medal after suffering a brain injury as a result of an explosion when his vehicle passed over an IED in Iraq.

When he recovered, he re-enlisted and rejoined his buddies in combat in Afghanistan.

He was on a dismounted patrol there in 2010, clearing the way for less experienced Marines, when he was wounded a second time.

"None of my guys had combat experience," he said. "So I decided to take the metal detecting job, which is the guy usually the first in patrol up front, sweeping for land mines, IEDs, everything."

The patrol entered a compound.

"I went in first and started sweeping the doors, then the interior," Peck recalled. "Everything was all right. I said hey, 'Guys, we're good.' The rest of the guys started going through the rooms there.

"Everything was fine," Peck said. "I went and told the sergeant I was going to go outside and stand security while they searched. As I went to turn around, I put my left leg forward. And the next thing I know, I'm thrown through the air. I felt something hit me in the head like a very, very hard rock--or it was my feet. I've come to believe it was my feet."

He looked up and saw the other Marines standing over him.

"I kept saying, 'I don't want to die here,' then I blacked out. The next thing I remember is feeling the rotor wash from the helicopter--a nice cold breeze. And I'm like, 'Don't let me die here.' And my guys were putting me on the helicopter. Then a medic said, 'You're going to go to sleep for a little bit.' And I said, 'OK, I'll see you guys tomorrow.'"

Peck woke up 2 months later at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., after having been put in a medically induced coma.

"At the time I was married, and I saw my mom and my wife there. And they asked me if I knew what was happening and I said, 'No, not really.' I told them I felt some sharp pain in my feet. And they said, 'John, you don't have feet anymore.'"

He underwent 28 surgeries and has spent much of the last two years being fitted with prostheses and going through physical therapy at Walter Reed.

"At first I was very upset about everything that happened. I was very mad at myself for letting it happen. I went through a very big adjustment phase. I was very angry at the world. I didn't want to be here in this condition. It took me a while, in phases. I kept getting better and seeing positives."

His wife left, he said, because, "She basically couldn't handle the injuries."

His mother, Lisa Peck, will live with him, but thanks to the new home's features, he will be able to do many things for himself he could not before.

Peck, who is still on active duty, said he plans to attend the Culinary Institute of America with the hope of becoming a chef after he leaves the Marine Corps.

He said he may also work with the Siller Foundation, marketing the work it does on behalf of wounded warriors by telling his personal story.

On Monday, he invited his new neighbors to visit, saying he would cook dinner for them.

Peck, who is from Antioch, Ill., said he chose Spotsylvania County because he likes the VA hospital in Richmond and because of the county's proximity to Walter Reed.

The Tunnel to Towers Foundation was founded in 2001 by the family of Siller, a New York City firefighter who perished while helping victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the twin towers. Siller was off duty, but immediately headed to the scene. When his truck was stopped in gridlock, he put on 60 pounds of gear and ran three miles to the towers.

Staff writer Richard Amrhine contributed to this story.

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