MIDDLEVILLE, Mich. (AP) — U.S. Army Sgt. Michael Gower looked over his shoulder as a bright light shined through one of the hatches in the troop compartment of the military vehicle he was sitting in.
Heading back to base, Gower’s unit started to pull off to the side of the road to wait for the rest of the platoon to catch up. The tires to the vehicle rolled over a 2-ton improvised explosive device (IED), MLive.com reported.
The date was Aug. 2, 2007 and Gower was serving his second deployment in the Middle East as an infantryman during the Iraq War. He had just finished operations in Baghdad, just south of the Green Zone across the Euphrates River.
The bomb explosion ripped through the vehicle, killing instantly several of Gower’s unit, including his squad leader seated near him.
“I remember trying to crawl out of the hatch and I couldn’t, I was stuck,” Gower recalled. “I started hollering for a medic because at that point, I figured we’d been hit.”
Gower, a Kalamazoo native only one month away from completing his 15-month deployment, suffered gruesome injuries, especially to his legs and feet.
More than a decade later and now a father, Gower, 35, expects to get some of his independence back.
A new home with specially designed features is being built in Middleville, about 25 miles southeast of Grand Rapids. The home for Gower and his family is being built through Homes For Our Troops, a nonprofit organization that builds homes for veterans with disabilities to accommodate their needs.
The home is designed to be fully handicap accessible. Gower’s current home features narrow hallways requiring him to discard his wheelchair and crawl to certain rooms.
The Gower family is tentatively scheduled to move into the new home in the spring. Gower called the specially designed home a blessing.
“It will help give me a little bit of that dignity back ... not needing to be so reliant on others, especially my wife,” Gower said. “I’ll be able to move around the house with no problem, go to the bathroom, cook dinner, take a shower because the shower is a roll-in shower.
“It’s just going to be life changing.”
The day after the explosion, Kelli Gower received a phone call that her husband had broken both his legs in an accident. At that time, she didn’t realize the severity of his injuries.
“As the week went on and the phone calls became more frequent, I knew something bad had happened,” Kelli said. “The phone calls just kept getting worse as the days went on.”
Gower was sedated for the majority of the time until he arrived at a hospital in Washington, D.C. where he woke up to find his wife next to him. The doctors discussed removing both of Michael’s legs below the knee, due to the severity of injuries he suffered.
He had critically injured his back, broke both feet, shattered both heels, broke both ankles, had multiple fractures of the tibia and fibula, and suffered a traumatic brain injury.
Even after learning he wouldn’t be able to walk on his own ever again, Michael still wasn’t ready to give up his legs.
“My heels looked like if you cup your hands and held it, it looked like you were holding sharp pea gravel,” Gower said. “It can beat up on a person mentally to have to rely on others ... especially trying to be so self-sufficient beforehand, then you get that taken away and have to rely on others. ... It’s hard.”
After therapy and multiple surgeries, he was able to go back home and receive medical treatment from the Veterans Administration in Michigan. He officially retired from the military in 2009.
After their son Alexander was born, the Gowers realized they needed a different home to support Gower in his quest to live more independently. Kelli started looking into organizations and found Homes For Our Troops online.
Construction of the Gowers’ new home began in October after the family was approved for the program. The nonprofit-built home will allow the war veteran and his family to live mortgage-free and start building a new life.
That’s the mission for Homes for Our Troops, a privately funded non-profit organization that builds and donates specially adapted custom homes nationwide for severely injured post-9/11 veterans.
The home they currently live in is located on a steep hill, making it a challenge for Gower to access and leave. The house, located in Allegan County’s Dorr Township, also doesn’t have enough space for Gower to use his wheelchair, requiring him to crawl down the hallway to get to his bathroom and kitchen.
“It has been life changing and it will give me peace of mind knowing that Michael can be extremely independent,” Kelli said. “We are grateful for Homes For Our Troops and it really has been a whirlwind process.”
“Honestly, it’s one of those things where it’s hard to put into words because it’s almost a whole new outlook, it’s almost like a whole new life,” Gower said about his new home. “When I wasn’t ready to give up my legs, I went to get these braces and then I was accepted into this program . . . There was now a light at the end of the tunnel.”
Gower’s leg braces also provide a level of independence. Veterans Affairs purchased the $20,000 leg braces in 2017. The specially made braces allow Gower to walk, run and jump temporarily. Due to his injuries, he can’t wear the braces for long periods of time.
The Homes For Our Troops house is tentatively scheduled to be completed this spring. A month before the house is finished, Homes For Our Troops is planning to host a Volunteer Day, where anyone in the community can come out and help with landscaping and the finishing touches on the house.
Jack Wright, owner of J.R. Wright Builders in Belding, is working with Homes For Our Troops to build the Gowers’ house. Wright has built other houses for veterans through Homes For Our Troops.
“Four years ago, Homes For Our Veterans reached out to me to ask me if I wanted to build houses,” Wright said. “After I did some research on them, I found out they were an awesome organization and I feel lucky to do this. ... Gower’s house is coming along great.”
The Gowers are looking forward to the day when they move into the house designed to provide the veteran with additional independence in everyday life.
Kelli reflected on the the many changes their family’s lives have changed since Aug. 2, 2007.
“We lost so many people we loved that day, we want to live a good life in memory of them,” Kelli said. “It’s hard to put into words. . . . Life will move forward, and you have to brace the struggles. It’s the people that make it easier and eventually the playing field will even out.”