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Home Again Against All Odds

2/1/2017

by Kelly Seegers

A severely wounded veteran and his family receive a “specially adapted smart home” through the Order’s partnership with the Gary Sinise Foundation

Veteran family recieves a new smart home

Photo courtesy of the Gary Sinise Foundation

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On Dec. 27, 2011, while serving his fifth combat tour since enlisting in 2000, U.S. Army Capt. Luis Avila was riding with five fellow soldiers in an MRAP armored vehicle near the Pakistani border of Afghanistan when an improvised explosive device (IED) detonated close by. Three of the soldiers were ejected from the vehicle and killed; Avila and two others survived. Avila lost his left leg, suffered two strokes and two heart attacks, and was left almost completely paralyzed and in a coma.

By the time his wife, Claudia, received the news, Luis had already been pronounced dead twice. She was told to go to Germany, where her husband was hospitalized, because the doctors did not think he would survive. As she left their home in Fort Hood, Texas, Claudia also left her three sons — Luis Jr., Miguel and José, who were 14, 12 and 9 at the time — with this promise: “I am going to bring your dad back alive.”

Today, after five years of challenges and unexpected graces, Luis continues his recovery at his family’s new “specially adapted smart home” in Chevy Chase, Md. It is one of more than 50 homes for severely wounded veterans completed or under construction by the Gary Sinise Foundation — and one of two that has been made possible through a partnership with the Knights of Columbus.

A member of Washington (D.C.) Council 224 and James Cardinal Hickey Assembly, Luis has discovered a strong network of support, while his witness and perseverance inspire those around him.

“Luis is a full testament that with God all things are possible,” Claudia said.

HOPE FOR RECOVERY

Claudia and Luis, who are both of Honduran descent, first met some 20 years ago in Washington, D.C., while Luis was visiting family there. Just three months later, the couple vowed to love each other in sickness and in health. They subsequently moved more than a dozen times and raised three children together.

Despite Luis’ extensive injuries, Claudia was not about to let her husband go. Upon arrival at the hospital in Germany, she insisted on seeing Luis right away, before being briefed by doctors. After a few days, it was clear to the doctors that her presence was helping Luis to recover. While he remained in a coma, his heartbeat and vital signs were stronger when Claudia was in the room.

By Jan. 12, Luis was stable enough to return to the United States. Yet while he was in the ICU at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, his doctors recommended that Claudia disconnect him from life support. Because of her faith that God had a reason for allowing Luis to make it that far, she adamantly refused. Claudia and her sons never lost hope and remained by his side, talking to him and playing his favorite music.

On Feb. 14, 2012, defying all odds and medical expectations, Luis gave his family the best St. Valentine’s Day present they could have asked for — he woke up.

The doctors, however, were still cautious, reminding Claudia that Luis could not speak and was unlikely to remember who she was. All the while, Claudia believed that the doctors underestimated her husband.

On April 5, 2012, Luis spoke for the first time since the IED blast. After learning what day it was, he turned to Claudia and with his characteristically sharp sense of humor, asked, “Have you filed my taxes?”

Three months later, the journey of recovery took the Avilas to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., where Luis continues to undergo extensive physical therapy. Claudia accompanies him through the rigorous rehab schedule, constantly praying the rosary to ask God for strength to get through each day.

Reflecting on his family’s dedication to him, Luis said, “I feel support, love and care.”

ANSWERED PRAYER

While Luis was still an inpatient at Walter Reed, Claudia began to worry about the next step of their journey, wondering and praying about how she would provide a handicap-accessible home for her husband.

“My prayer was, ‘Give me the challenge or the problem, but really help me to make it happen,’” Claudia said. “I am a true believer that God does not give us more than we can handle.”

One day in 2013, Claudia received an answer to her prayer. Gary Sinise, an actor and philanthropist best known for his role as Lieutenant Dan in the movie Forrest Gump, met with the Avilas. He encouraged them to apply for a home through his charity serving veterans and first responders, the Gary Sinise Foundation, and its R.I.S.E. (Restoring Independence Supporting Empowerment) program.

Since the Avilas did not yet know where they would need to live for Luis’ medical care, they had to wait.

After Luis was discharged from Walter Reed on Feb. 4, 2014, the Avilas moved into a rental home in Bethesda. Makeshift ramps allowed Luis to travel between the bedroom, living room and garage, but only with constant supervision.

When the Avilas finally learned in June 2015 that they needed to stay near Walter Reed for Luis’ continued medical care, the Gary Sinise Foundation swiftly mobilized to build their home.

The foundation also informed the Avila family that a partner was contributing $600,000 to the project — the Knights of Columbus.

To the Avilas, this was just one more sign of God’s providence. The family already knew the Order well, as Luis and Claudia had recently returned from their first trip with the Knights to Lourdes, France. In May 2015, they participated in the Warriors to Lourdes Pilgrimage for Wounded or Disabled Military Personnel, organized by the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA, and supported by the Knights. During the pilgrimage, Luis experienced the healing baths of Lourdes, and upon their return he regained movement in his left arm, which was previously paralyzed.

Several months later, Luis joined the Order. His fellow Knights, he said, have given him a great deal of “moral support and brotherhood.”

Capt. Luis Avila shakes hands with actor Gary Sinise

Capt. Luis Avila shakes hands with actor Gary Sinise at the dedication ceremony of the Avilas’ new home in Chevy Chase, Md., Nov. 11, 2016. Photo courtesy of the Gary Sinise Foundation

FAITH AND COURAGE

In October 2015, the Avilas were fortunate to find a lot just two miles away from Walter Reed, which would also allow their sons to remain in the same school district. As it turned out, the lot had previously belonged to a World War II veteran who wished for the land to be sold to one of his brothers in arms.

R.I.S.E. broke ground on the house Feb. 9, 2016, and after just nine months of hard work, the finished home was dedicated Nov. 11. Neighbors, staff members of Walter Reed, donors to the program, and friends of the Avilas gathered together on Veterans Day to welcome the family to their new home.

“Having it on Veterans Day made it a little more special,” said Luis Jr.

During the dedication ceremony, representatives of the organizations that partnered to build the home shared their gratitude for Captain Avila’s service. Patrick Kelly, deputy supreme knight and executive director of the Saint John Paul II National Shrine in Washington, D.C., said the house is a sign of the Order’s solidarity with the Avila family and with all veterans.

“We are proud to call Luis a brother Knight,” he said, “not only for his heroism in combat but also for the courage with which he has faced his injuries.”

Gary Sinise also expressed his admiration for Capt. Avila in his remarks. “While we can never truly repay the debt that we owe Luis,” he said, “we can strive to show him and his brothers and sisters in arms our appreciation and gratitude whenever possible.”

Turning to the Avilas, Sinise added, “You and Claudia are just simply amazing individuals. Your faith in God, your love for each other and for your beautiful children are infectious. I am quite sure that God has found joy in your faith and courage. I know that I have.”

With the help of music therapists from Walter Reed, Luis, for whom speaking is still difficult, sang “God Bless America” to conclude the dedication ceremony.

REGAINING INDEPENDENCE

The Avilas’ new home includes an elevator and wide doors and hallways to allow Luis to navigate freely, without assistance. He can control many features of the home from an iPad, which the Gary Sinise Foundation presented to him during the home’s dedication.

“This home is not only going to be a place for us to live, but it will help Luis heal faster and regain a lot of the things that he had lost,” Claudia said. “Because now he not only has the peace of mind, but he has the confidence to be able to go everywhere.”

In the new house, Luis enjoys the ability to complete everyday tasks, such as going to the kitchen to get himself a bottle of water. Claudia said she now asks Luis to bring her water, too, and apologized to him for taking advantage of the new convenience. Without missing a beat, Luis joked, “Don’t get used to it.”

“Having more mobility makes life easier,” said Luis Jr. “I’m seeing my dad more often, with him not just being trapped in a single room anymore. Now he can go everywhere.”

During a “Walls of Honor” event held by the Gary Sinise Foundation during the home’s construction, friends and supporters wrote kind wishes on wooden beams that have since been covered. But in between all of those notes is the message that has kept the family strong through it all – the Word of God. In the wall between the living room and Claudia and Luis’s bedroom stands a Bible that was donated by the Knights of Columbus. The Avilas consider this the true centerpiece of the house.

“When we were building the home, we wanted to have something that we could put in here to remember where we came from,” Claudia said. “No matter how difficult it has been and no matter how challenging it has been, we’re always going to be together. Love and prayers and faith will help us through everything. This is what this home really is all about.”


KELLY SEEGERS is a staff writer for the Catholic Standard, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington.