On Friday morning, veteran Joe Sielski stepped out of a grey minivan with his wife, Sheila, to applause. He stopped and glanced toward his new home, donated by Wells Fargo.
"Wow, this is overwhelming for me," he said, patting his hand on his chest.
As a Military Warriors Support Foundation member led him up the driveway, Sielski broke off and shook hands with the roughly 25 people who welcomed him, hobbling on a black cane.
After two children rushed to bring him cookies they baked, he returned to thanking the crowd one by one, making sure not to miss anyone.
The crowd included U.S. Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, and three state lawmakers.
"One of the things I think about whenever I am in the presence of heroes is, 'What should we be doing as free people to express our thanks?' And I think one of the ways we should do it is to live like free people," Cramer said to the crowd. "Look up around this street, what a community. What a blessing it is to have a yard, and to have homes and shelter and places where kids can play, and sometimes we take that for granted as free people."
Cramer added that he had arranged for a U.S. flag flown at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., to replace the flag hanging by the home's entrance.
Sielski served in the military for decades before retiring earlier this year. He served as an instructor at West Point before being deployed to Afghanistan in 2003 and Iraq in 2004. He has received two Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts.
At the event, Sielski mentioned being wounded while fighting in Ramadi, Iraq. His military vehicle struck a roadside bomb, which killed the gunner and caused the driver to lose both legs.
"I was the lucky one, believe it or not," Sielski said.
He told the crowd a memory he had of returning home, when he realized the sacrifices his wife had made while he was away for seven years.
"My daughter got me and said, 'Mom is in the kitchen crying,' so I got up and went over and she was having a hard time," Sielski said. "I asked her what was wrong. She said, 'You're just here, you're here.'"
The Sielskis have eight children. Five will be living in their new home. The three eldest daughters have completed school, with the eldest daughter serving as a U.S. Air Force staff sergeant in Minot.
Sielski applied for the home program. Applicants are vetted in interviews. A committee then reviews applicants who qualify before awarding one of them a home.
Wells Fargo donated the mortgage-free home to the Military Warriors Support Foundation. The nonprofit's Homes4WoundedHeroes program also awards three years of family and financial mentoring to help combat-wounded veterans and families whose loved ones died in combat.
Wells Fargo has donated more than 400 homes, valued at over $60 million, in every state, according to a statement by the financial services company. Wells Fargo has donated three homes to veterans in North Dakota, including two last month, Wells Fargo spokesman John Hobot said.
Since 2010, Military Warriors Support Foundation has awarded nearly 1,000 mortgage-free homes and helped military families pay off nearly $21 million in debt through its mentor program.
While the ceremony in Lincoln took place, Ron Taylor was loading his truck outside his house next door to go deer hunting. He stopped at one point to watch the event.
"The house has been empty for over two years. So it's nice to see somebody move into the house, especially a veteran," said Taylor, who served during the Vietnam War. "I'm sure they are very grateful people, well-deserving."
Sheila Sielski said Friday was what the "American dream" is all about.
"He fought for his country, and it's like just unbelievable. I can't believe it," she said. "We don't have to worry about having to pay rent, or a mortgage, because we are a big family and that's one of the biggest expenses."
Reach Andy Tsubasa Field at 701-250-8264 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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