Justin and Jennie Hendrickson couldn’t stop smiling as they crossed the threshold of their new Butler County home – a safe haven for the U.S. Navy veteran and his wife.
A chorus of “welcome home” wishes followed them through the front door last Saturday morning after they received the keys from Homes For Our Troops, a nonprofit that builds specially-adapted homes for veterans injured after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
“They take care of you,” said Hendrickson, 36, petty officer third class.
He and his wife said they couldn’t wait to start making new memories in the Marion Township home just outside of Harrisville, like hosting holidays meals and family gatherings.
“We actually have clothes in the car right now,” he laughed about how they were ready to move right in, even if it meant sleeping on the floor.
The Hendricksons, Beaver County natives who have been married for 12 years, greeted friends, family, community members and Homes For Our Troops representatives after a key ceremony was held outside.
The one-story home measures about 2,700 square feet and sits on roughly 12 acres in a rural area. There’s a patio out back, an American flag out front that the Hendricksons raised, and lots of natural light and neutral colors that make for an inviting and comfortable space.
The rooms of the four-bedroom, two-bathroom home are spread out and have low counters, wide doorways, and other features that will help Hendrickson get around easily.
He sometimes uses a wheelchair, having been injured while serving in Iraq. On May 6, 2005, Hendrickson and his unit, the 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines, were conducting a resupply mission to a forward outpost in Al Anbar Province.
Their vehicle drove over an improvised explosive device. Hendrickson was hit with shrapnel, and his right leg was eventually amputated.
He learned about Homes For Our Troops and sent in an application, and he was very surprised and excited when he found out that he’d be the recipient of a new home.
So far their favorite part is the peace and quiet of their neighborhood, and they can already picture having their morning coffee on the back porch, the Hendricksons said as they stepped into a guest bedroom.
They had fun picking out colors, finishes, flooring and cabinets, and they called the whole experience “mind-blowing.”
And they feel blessed knowing that they have a safe place to call “home” when it comes to Hendrickson’s physical needs.
Attendees learned more about the project during the ceremony, which started with dozens of motorcyclists with the Patriot Guard Riders leading Hendrickson’s procession up Creek Bottom Road.
They were followed by local first responders and emergency vehicles. The Hendricksons rode in a pickup truck, taking in the crowd waving small American flags and cheering loudly.
The Color Guard from the U.S. Army Reserve came forward, and the Penn-Ohio Singers performed the National Anthem. The Patriot Guard Riders surrounded the ceremony, many of the them holding American flags.
Kelsey Woodhouse, community outreach coordinator for Homes For Our Troops, read the opening prayer, which was written by Navy chaplain Robert Bradshaw, who served with Justin but was unable to attend the ceremony.
Bradshaw said he was proud of Hendrickson, because he never lost his spark. He blessed the Hendrickson family and their new home.
The Hendrickson home is the organization’s 282nd housing project, and about 80 more homes for veterans are in progress across the country, Woodhouse said.
State Sen. Scott Hutchinson, R-21st District, Oil City, spoke next, and said he was happy to celebrate the volunteer spirit and veterans like Hendrickson.
Ryan DeArment, vice president of sales and marketing of Meadville-based Channellock, a corporate partner, said he was honored to be there because Hendrickson has given so much.
Fundraisers are a big part of these projects, Woodhouse said. The American Legion Riders of Zelienople with Post 474 presented the Hendricksons a check for $10,522.
Heather Sweesy and her husband, David Van Doren, a Desert Storm veteran who died in 2018 in an accident, spent time raising money for Homes For Our Troops.
She continues to hold fundraisers in his memory and said she is inspired by the Hendricksons.
Scott Martin, the general contractor of the Hendrickson home, said he was honored to help with the project, which reaffirmed his faith in others.
“It has been one of the most enjoyable journeys for me,” he said.
He presented the Hendricksons a horseshoe that he found on the property while he was moving topsoil – a representation of good luck.
Martin also gifted them with a large shadowbox containing pieces of wood from the project signed by their family and friends. Hendrickson later said he might display it in an area that he hopes to turn into a “man cave.”
Mrs. Hendrickson spoke next, first reading a message from HM2 Jeffrey A. Manalansan, a Navy chaplain and Purple Heart recipient.
He served in Iraq with Hendrickson, who has the biggest heart, Manalansan said.
Mrs. Hendrickson said she’s proud to be married to her husband, who took care of her when she was being treated for brain cancer. She’s now in remission.
“God blessed both of us with a second chance at a new life,” she said.
He has taught military students at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., talking about his experience in Iraq, and he works as a registered nurse.
“The world needs more people like you. Thank you for being you. Let’s go home,” she said, embracing her husband.
Tom Landwermeyer, chief executive officer and president of Homes For Our Troops, and a retired brigadier general who served with the U.S. Army, said the organization stays in touch with the veterans after they’ve settled into to their new homes.
They want to make sure all is well, a nod to the group’s “Building homes, rebuilding lives” motto.
The new homes allow for more freedom and independence, and many of those veterans and their families go back to school or find new careers because they feel safe and secure.
“Your home should be your place of respite,” he said.
Hendrickson closed out the ceremony, saying he was humbled, honored, blessed and privileged.
He thanked his wife, family, friends, Homes For Our Troops, and everyone who helped with the home.
“I’m in shock right now,” he said.
Also on hand were his parents and his in-laws, who stood by proudly as they waited for the procession to arrive.
“He came up here and he loved it,” his mother, Diane Hendrickson, said of the location.
She and her husband Bruce are excited that their son will have an easy time navigating the home. They look forward to spending time together at the home, Diane Hendrickson said, noting that her son received the Purple Heart.
Jennie Hendrickson’s parents, Suzanne and Joe Pavkovic, said they love everything about the home, and they helped with some of the landscaping.
There’s been a lot of community support, and the home is a good fit for the Hendricksons.
“They can live quietly and peacefully,” Mrs. Pavkovic said, calling it a “dream home.”