Florida community restores, donates house to Army veteran wounded in Iraq
By AUSTIN FULLER | The News-Journal, Daytona Beach, Fla. | Published: April 14, 2017
DELAND, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — Bobby Loria's nightmare began with ringing ears and chunks of concrete and dirt.
It was February 2004 when, as he worked to help another solider in Iraq, an explosion took part of the Army corporal's left arm and left him with lasting damage to his left leg.
"I had no clue how everything that worked out was going to work out," Loria said. "I started thinking of the future and how much I was going to miss people and pretty much everything changed."
Loria was awarded a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart for the incident, and, now 40, he has also been welcomed to DeLand with a 1921 home east of downtown that was restored through a community effort led by the Defending Freedom Warrior Weekend organization.
Joining the Army
Loria grew up in Port Jervis, New York, right where the state meets New Jersey and Pennsylvania. He had relatives who served in the military, and was looking for a way out of his hometown, so he joined the Army in 1999 when he was 22.
"I wanted to travel," he said. "I wanted to do something positive with my life."
Loria recalls the camaraderie and fun of the Army: "We'd get into so much trouble. Well, within reason."
One memory he shared recently from his DeLand home took place at a training base in Germany.
"They had these rolls of, like, Saran wrap, and we would actually, we'd find somebody sleeping really heavily and roll them," he said. "Then we'd put hot sauce on their tongue and they'd wake up and they couldn't get out of bed."
He deployed to Iraq in April 2003, the month after a U.S. invasion aimed at dismantling Saddam Hussein's suspected weapons of mass destruction. On May 1, 2003, Bush declared the end of major combat operations, but U.S. occupation continued, and violence against the troops escalated.
Injury in Iraq
After about 10 months in Iraq, Loria — who worked mostly as a driver in the 4th Infantry Division — was helping with security while another soldier dismantled an improvised explosive device in Baqubah, in the province to the northeast of Baghdad.
"He walks back out there, apparently to photograph it, or document it, or pull pieces apart of it, I don't exactly know what he was doing," Loria said. "Another device goes off."
Loria got in his vehicle to drive the soldier for medical help.
"There's probably four or five people already working on this guy," he said. "From what I can see, he's got no hand, one of his hands is missing, the other one is severely damaged."
The wounded soldier was placed on the front of the truck, and then Loria started to drive.
"The road exploded. All I saw was chunks of concrete and dirt," he said. "I didn't really hear the blast. The ringing of the ear was more prevalent than the actual blast. I got thrown into the center of the vehicle. I remember still holding onto the steering wheel."
Loria thought he had been hit by a truck, and then he looked at the wheel.
"That's when I noticed that the hand was no longer on the steering wheel," he said.
"It's like a dream. You feel like you're in a dream that you're not going to wake up from and it really is. It turns out to be a nightmare, in some aspects."
Loria lost part of his left arm below the elbow, fractured his femur, and lost feeling in his left leg from the knee down. Yet Loria found a silver lining.
"It felt amazing to know that after everything that happened that nobody died," he said.
DeLand donates house
Last year, the city of DeLand donated a home it foreclosed on because of a code enforcement lien to Defending Freedom Warrior Weekend, which takes combat wounded veterans skydiving.
The house was dilapidated when the organization took it over, with vines growing on its exterior and and an interior in disrepair. Now, an American flag hangs from the front porch and a large star is displayed over the door.
The group invested about $30,000 in the project and received help from the community, especially from the First United Methodist Church of DeLand's Disaster Response Team, said Defending Freedom Warrior Weekend Chairman and President Quin Booth.
Loria, who was living back in Port Jervis before moving into the restored home, was selected to receive it after participating in numerous Defending Freedom Warrior Weekend events.
Booth said the hope is that Loria can help identify veterans who may need help or services from the group.
"What Bobby actually brings to the community is the opportunity for more dialogue with veterans of his generation," Booth said.
Loria, meanwhile, said DeLand and its people grew on him.
"I still don't believe that it's a house that's for me," he said. "There's part of me that still thinks I don't deserve it, but we're here."
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