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Facebook plea brings strangers to aid of Vietnam veteran near Fort Bragg

By AMANDA DOLASINSKI | The Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer (TNS) | Published: December 23, 2014

CAMERON, N.C. (Tribune News Service) — Vietnam veteran Donald Lee wobbled around with a cane as the sound of axes chopping wood and chainsaws taking down trees echoed throughout his five-acre property.

He occasionally stopped to pet one of his many rescue dogs or to hug one of the soldiers who arrived to join the others already working on his property.

"This is a Christmas miracle," he said, taking it all in.

"In 40 some years, one thing about the military that hasn't changed, brothers and sisters take care of each other."

By 10 a.m. Sunday, more than 50 volunteers — mostly soldiers and strangers who had never met Lee — were sprawled across his property clearing trees and debris to build him a new home.

Lee, 59, has been living in a dilapidated camper with no heat, water or front door for almost two years.

Eventually, Lee said he would like to build other cabins across his property for homeless veterans.

Volunteers are expected to continue working on the property all week. Southland Rental and Supply in Fayetteville donated a Bobcat excavator for use, and volunteers plan to solicit donations of building materials from building supply companies.

Lee enlisted in the Army in 1972. He served in a unit based at Arlington Hall, Va.

He was sent to Thailand, where he said his unit was tasked to get POWs from Vietnam.

Lee left the Army in 1975. But the experiences he endured stuck with him and drove him to alcohol.

He shut the world out and found tranquility alone in the camper on his property.

He started to clean up his life in 1999 and has been sober since, he said.

He continued to struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder until friend Amanda Pavone came into his life.

"She kicked me in the butt 'til I was ready to live again," he said. "I needed it."

Lee met Pavone, a soldier with a Reserve unit, a few months ago through a group that pairs soldiers dealing with PTSD. At first, Pavone was running to get groceries and dog food for Lee and his 12 rescue dogs.

She soon realized that he was living in a small camper off Page Store Road in Cameron that had no running water, heat or even a front door.

Lee is on a fixed income. His monthly social security disability checks cover basic bills and dog food, he said.

"That's it," he said. "I've learned there's a lot of stuff I don't need."

When Pavone approached him about soliciting volunteers to help with a new home, Lee said such a feat "ain't gonna happen."

He'd been let down by volunteers before, he said.

Sunday, however, he stood in his driveway, quietly crying as volunteers hustled around him.

"They're creating a legacy for their fellow veterans," he said. "I appreciate it."

The grassroots project started casually.

Pavone posted on Facebook that she needed help:

"Calling on all vets in the Fayetteville/Sanford/Ft. Bragg/Cameron area. We are needing help clearing a wooded area to prepare to build a home for a disabled Vietnam veteran," she wrote. "Bring your chainsaws, trucks, Bobcats, muscles, whatever just come help."

She and her family previously repaired the water line. For the first time in years, Lee can turn on a faucet and confidently sip a glass of clean water.

For heat, Lee relies on a space heater.

And the door? It was already in bad shape, but Lee kicked it out of frustration when one of his rescue dogs was shot, he said. Volunteers built a wood door to replace the draped blankets covering the frame.

Despite the slight fixes, Pavone said she knew Lee couldn't continue to live that way. In fact, she refused to let a veteran live that way.

"When we're in basic training, we're kind of assigned battle buddies," she said. "We're taught: Never leave a fallen comrade. He's my comrade."

She reached out to civilian groups for help. Maybe it's the time of year, but she said she wasn't able to get any help from those groups.

So she reached out to groups online that soldiers frequent.

The post was made Saturday night - and it spread like wildfire.

Pavone said her phone beeped with text messages from people asking for directions to the property until 3:30 a.m. Sunday. By 5 a.m., it started up again.

On Sunday night, the post garnered more than 1,300 likes, 500 shares and 170 comments. Most of the comments were from volunteers stating they would be there.

Pavone said she expected maybe 10 volunteers. Instead, they showed up in droves - some from as far as Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and Fort Lee, Virginia.

"I'm just a regular person," Pavone said. "It doesn't take a large, nonprofit organization to see someone struggling and say, 'Let me see what I can do for you.'"

Soldiers walked up to the property and immediately jumped into action. There wasn't a designated leader, but the mission was clear.

Some soldiers grabbed axes to chop down the tall, skinny trees. Others carried the logs to soldiers crouched with a chainsaw, ready to cut the logs into smaller pieces. Those pieces were then gathered and placed into a stack.

Most of the volunteers wore T-shirts with Fort Bragg affiliations or the Wounded Warrior Project.

"We're going to give Donald a new home, a new peace of mind and a new life," Pavone said.

The grassroots project also was meaningful to the volunteers, she said.

"Just because we're not over there at war anymore, we're still here having a purpose," she said. "It's going to give them a sense of accomplishment, a sense of hope and a sense of purpose."

Tim Marks II, a veteran and contractor at Fort Bragg, helped carry logs that had been chopped. He was moving a little slower than everyone else because his broken foot was in a boot, but he said it was important for him to contribute in ways that he could.

"It's whatever you can do to be helpful," he said. "I felt like, of all the bad things you do, it's good to do something halfway decent."

Marks served in the Army from 2004 to 2008. He was a satellite communications operator and deployed to Iraq twice. He deployed to Afghanistan once as a contractor.

His friend saw the Facebook post soliciting help and they immediately planned to be there. Neither had ever met Lee.

"He's an old Vietnam veteran. They don't get treated the best," Marks said. "Veterans better understand each other's struggles than civilians. There's a universal bond. We'll always come together in the end."

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©2014 The Fayetteville Observer (Fayetteville, N.C.)

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