Injured vet feels at home, at last

Friday, July 20, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT

LAKE OZARK — It's appropriate that the drive to Todd Nicely's new Cambridge Avenue home, which backs up to the Cornett Branch Cove, includes traveling half a mile down a road named Bittersweet.

The 28-year-old, originally from Arnold, said it was always a dream of his to live by the lake after retirement. He just didn't expect it to happen this soon. Or this way.

Nicely was injured in Afghanistan in early 2010 when he stepped on a 40-pound explosive device. The blast ripped off his hands and legs. He spent more than a year in hospitals recovering and learning how to adjust to life using prostheses on all his limbs.

In the meantime, officials at the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation, a New York nonprofit group that assists surviving children of emergency personnel and injured servicemen, began working on a "smart house" that would allow Nicely to maintain his independence.

Nicely and his wife, Crystal, moved into the home about three weeks ago.

"Life has gotten 10 times better," Todd Nicely said last week as he stood in his kitchen and flipped a switch that lowered a cabinet to counter height so he could retrieve a plate.

The top level of the Nicelys' three-story home includes small things like hooks on cabinets and handles on doors instead of knobs so Todd can easily manipulate them. It also includes an intercom system and controls to hear television and radio throughout the home's rooms. The bathroom shower in the master suite looks more like one found in a fitness center, with a bench around the sides that Todd said he uses to scoot around on while cleaning up. Many rooms have illuminated emergency buttons Todd can push if he's in distress and needs to alert others.

Before, Todd said he would have to wake Crystal to prepare his breakfast and help with other menial tasks. Now, he walks into the kitchen, latches the fingers of the prosthetic hand attached to his left arm around the handle on the refrigerator, opens it and pulls out what he wants to eat.

"To me, it means everything," he said, tapping a touch-operated faucet in the kitchen sink to start water running." This house is wired for whatever I need to do."

Crystal, 26, said it's nice to see her husband able to do simple tasks again.

"Todd can live a normal life here and not get frustrated when he wants to eat," she said.

The house also frees up Crystal to take classes again toward a degree in social work. She wants to work with children, eventually creating a youth center near their home that offers after-school programs and other services.

Todd said he spends a lot of time volunteering at Pistol Plus, a local gun shop, learning about all the weapons they keep in stock.

The second floor includes two guest rooms and another living room. The floor also is wired to enable Todd to navigate his way around.

The bottom level, Todd said, is his man cave. It includes a bar area, an entertainment center with a big-screen television and leather lounge chairs and a gym. The level is decorated with autographed sports jerseys and NASCAR model cars and an Afghan flag with notes from the Marines in his unit, all collected since his accident.

Calls from the men from his unit make him miss the military.

"I loved it," he said of his time as an active Marine. "If I had only lost one leg, I'd have gone back."

On the ceiling is a blue car hood off a race car from the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation, which is responsible for the house.

"They just went above and beyond," he said of the group. "I don't think I can say thank you enough."

Tunnel to Towers began as a race to commemorate the run on Sept. 11, 2001, by New York firefighter Stephen Siller from the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel to the World Trade Center towers, where he headed after learning of the terrorist attacks. Siller died at the towers that day with 10 other members of his squad.

The race evolved to fund a foundation that helps surviving children of emergency personnel "who paid the ultimate sacrifice." Chris Kuban, the foundation's director of media relations, said the group's mission further widened after hearing the story of Army Spc. Brendan Marrocco of Staten Island, who lost all four limbs in an explosion on Easter Sunday in 2009.

And the message is rubbing off on others. The foundation now partners with the Gary Sinise Foundation to build the homes for severely wounded soldiers. The actor and his musical group, the Lt. Dan Band, partnered with Tunnel to Towers in 2011 for a benefit concert to raise funds for the Nicelys' home. Now, both foundations are cooperating on other homes, with plans to build 14 homes this year.

"Two years ago, the foundation had no idea it would be building homes," Kuban said. "But they want to be there for the folks who paid the ultimate price."

One of those homes is being built in Jefferson City for Marine Cpl. Tyler Huffman, 24. He was shot in the chest in Afghanistan in December 2010 and paralyzed.

And Sinise and his band will be at Apple Creek Farms in Centertown on July 27 for a concert to raise money for Huffman's home. Centertown is about 10 miles west of Jefferson City.

The Nicelys' house offers the couple a glimpse of what their life will evolve into. The couple were married only eight months before Todd Nicely was deployed to Afghanistan in October 2009. The smart house finally allows them to settle into married life. They're still unpacking the house and learning all its intricacies while trying to build a routine. A dock is still to be built, Todd said, with a boat to come at the same time.

The house almost completes things, said Todd, who added that the couple plan to stay in the lake house forever.

"I've been given this house ... and a new way to live," he said. "All that's missing is a family."

It'll come in time, Crystal said.

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