With help, North Texas veteran who lost legs to trade apartment for four-bedroom house

Zach Briseno in front of new home by StarTelegram
Zach Briseno’s house is on a lot donated by Hillwood Residential. The house was built by Standard Pacific Homes of Dallas, which provides an in-kind donation equal to the cost of the lot. The Semper Fi Fund donated $25,000 toward construction. Photo by Star-Telegram/Rodger Mallison.

By Chris Vaughn | Star Telegram | Star-Telegram.com | May 3, 2011


Fort Worth, TX — Zach Briseno remembers well an out-of-the-blue offer that fell squarely in the “too good to be true” category.

An organization he had never heard of asked him whether he would like a new quarter-million-dollar house, built to his specifications in the color of his choice in a planned community with a swimming pool.


It wouldn’t be free. He would have to pay $50,000 for it, or about $350 a month. Other than that, everything was covered.

“It was crazy,” he said. “I thought it was a joke. How often do you get a phone call like that?”


The hard-to-believe offer from Helping a Hero is soon to be realized.


Briseno, a 25-year-old who grew up on Fort Worth’s north side and in River Oaks, earned the offer the hard way, though. He lost both his legs to a bomb buried in a dirt road in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2007, ending his nascent career as a Marine noncommissioned officer and pushing him into a life as a disabled veteran.


“I never thought I would need to live in an adaptive house,” he said.


There have been many struggles, setbacks and temporary impediments over the last 31/2 years — amputation, surgeries, rehabilitation, forced retirement, missed friends.


His new house hasn’t been one of them.


Construction started on his four-bedroom house in the Creekwood subdivision north of Loop 820 early this year and will likely finish in late June. Briseno will then move out of the one-bedroom apartment he shares with his 5-year-old son, Elijah.

His mother, Mariana Rice, jokes that she’s ready for the house to be ready.


“We’re going to have a ‘Take Zach His Stuff Party’ as soon as it’s completed,” she said. “I’ve got a lot of his mementos and stuff stored at my house. Really, I know it’s going to make him feel a lot better to have a place he can call home, and Eli is so excited about having his own room.”


The house has wider doors, a roll-in shower, roll-under sinks, flush thresholds, lower counters and wheelchair-accessible appliances, among many other adaptive features.


Much of the time, Briseno walks on custom-made prosthetic legs — one painted in the sign of the claw, another painted in the antlers symbol — but he sometimes uses a wheelchair and is still undergoing occasional surgeries.


His house is the first for the Helping a Hero organization in North Texas. A second home was recently announced in Frisco for a retired Special Forces sergeant and Silver Star recipient who lost a leg in Afghanistan.


Started in 2006 by a wealthy, well-connected Houston woman who owns a public relations and consulting firm, Helping a Hero has completed 24 houses nationwide, has six under construction and 15 more planned for later this year.


Meredith Iler, the founder and chairwoman, said the organization builds houses in the neighborhood of 3,000 square feet, regardless of the veteran’s marital or child status, because they want a long-term house that will fill needs for many years. (Severely disabled veterans are also entitled to receive a 100 percent property tax exemption in Texas.)


“We want them to never have to move,” she said. “Our goal is to place them in a stable home in a stable environment, where they are able to build a successful future.”


The organization is different from other nonprofits building houses for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans because it requires the veteran to take on a $50,000 mortgage, a bit like Habitat for Humanity requires its homeowners to make affordable, monthly payments.


Iler said requiring veterans to contribute has nothing to do with her ability to raise money for the houses.

“It’s a choice we’ve made,” she said. “We really believe that it’s important for them to have skin in the game and for us not to take away their role as provider of the family. All of my guys tell me not to change that piece. They want to provide for their family by participating in paying it off. If any of them told me they weren’t happy with that, we’d stop doing it.”

Briseno said he’s grateful for the massive help getting a house he might not be able to afford for many more years.


“I’m really appreciative of people stepping up and doing things for me, but I’m good paying for some of this too,” he said. “It’s not me to take for free.”


In 2003, just two months after the U.S. invaded Iraq and not long after he walked across the stage with his Castleberry diploma in hand, Briseno enlisted in the Marines.


The Corps sent him to Fallujah in 2005 as an ambulance driver when the insurgency was peaking, a time he refers to as “very sucky.” He returned in 2007 as part of an 11-man team in Fallujah who trained Iraqi police.

Compared to his first tour, it was radically different.


“The sheiks were cooperating, and we were getting heads-up from locals when there were IEDs planted in the roads,” he said. “It was pretty quiet. We were actually getting bored.”


On Nov. 29, 2007, two days after Thanksgiving, Briseno’s Humvee was part of a small convoy heading back to its Iraqi police station late that night. He was sitting in the passenger seat. Another Marine was driving; another was manning the big gun on top.


A huge explosion rattled the Humvee. Someone had set off an anti-tank mine buried in the street, directly under Briseno’s seat.

“The driver and gunner both walked away with concussions,” he said.


One of the Marines in Briseno’s team found one of his legs, with the boot still on, before they cleared the area. By then, it was too late. Doctors would amputate the other because of its extensive damage and consider taking his right arm too.

It really wasn’t that long ago that Briseno envisioned his life as “over” because of the loss of his legs.


“I just knew I’d be in a wheelchair the rest of my life,” he said.


But a fellow Marine showed up to visit him one day in the hospital, and, like Briseno, he had no legs. The Marine told Briseno that he water-skied, snow-skied, rode motorcycles and sky-dived, his words serving as a challenge to Briseno.


“From that point on, I had a ‘watch me’ attitude with the doctors and therapists,” he said. “It was almost immediate.”

Briseno is gone from the wars but only in a sense. In other ways, the wars will never leave him, and he readily admits to badly missing the camaraderie of the Corps.


Last September, Christopher Vaile, one of his closest friends, a Marine who served with him on that 11-man team when his legs were blown off, was killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan.


Briseno got a huge tattoo on his right arm with Vaile’s name, birth date and date of death. Beside them are the letters GBNF — Gone But Not Forgotten.


“It was a hard time for him when Chris was killed,” his mother said. “He wondered why he was spared. He wanted to be there to save Chris, like they saved him.”


He keeps thinking about what it would be like to work as a civilian contractor in Baghdad.


He also thinks about enrolling in college and studying nursing, especially pediatric nursing. He also keeps busy helping coach Castleberry baseball.


“I keep looking for the possibilities out there,” he said.

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