‘Life changing’ house gives veteran new independence

Sasha Zidar
Veteran Michael Gower says the house in Middleville will enable him “to move around the house with no problem, to go to the bathroom, cook dinner, take a shower ... .”

Middleville – 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.

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 several members 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.

The home they live in is on a steep hill, making it a challenge for Gower to get in and out. The house, 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.”