Wounded Warrior and family surprised by gift of mortgage-free home

Fans were cheering for more than just the home team at a Pelicans baseball game this week.

The ruckus at the end of the third inning Thursday night at TicketReturn.com Field was for a twice-wounded American soldier and his family, who were surprised with the on-field announcement that they would be getting a mortgage-free home.

“Words cannot express just how grateful we are and what a blessing this is,” U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Shawn Whitmore said after the announcement. “To think people would get together like this. We don’t join the military for accolades but if anyone thinks we [military veterans] are not being supported, we are.”

Ruth Coffman, family matters coordinator of the nonprofit Operation Finally Home (OFH) that helps find housing for disabled war veterans, escorted veteran Whitmore, wife Tracey and four of their five children to the game.

Aware they were competing for a new home, the family was brought from Fort Myers, Fla., under the guise they were in the final interview process. As part of the ploy, they were told they would be competing after the third inning in a trivia contest and were directed to watch the TV monitor.

What they saw on the monitor was Will Cutler, PulteGroup’s Coastal Carolinas division president, announcing they would receive a home being constructed in the Berkshire Forest community of Myrtle Beach through a partnership with Pulte’s Built to Honor program and OFH.

Cutler and a host of other local Pulte employees swarmed the Whitmores after the presentation to offer hugs and words of encouragement to a family overcome with surprise and joy.

A member of the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg in North Carolina from 2006 to 2014, Whitmore was among the more than two million soldiers serving their country in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001. During three deployments, he twice survived bouts with mortar rockets and improvised explosive devices that left him with a brain injury that affects his memory and physical injuries that have required dozens of surgeries with more to come in the future. He medically retired from the Army a year ago.

Why place the Whitmores in Myrtle Beach? A former PGA golf instructor prior to his military service, the 41-year-old veteran still enjoys the game he calls “therapeutic” -- and this area is rich in golf courses. While in a Warrior Transition Unit, he played in the 2011 Children’s Miracle Network Classic alongside pros that included Davis Love III and Boo Weekley.

He feels golf provides a sense of accomplishment to a wounded warrior. “The ball doesn’t judge you,” he said.

However, golf is secondary to the family’s desire to relocate to the Grand Strand. They have spent many happy days vacationing in the area where they have relatives nearby. The couple and their children--Jonathon, 14; Austin, 13; Hailey, 10; Ian, 8; and Alexis, 4 --along with their two dogs, two guinea pigs and a fish tank -- hope to move to the area soon to help in any way they can during construction. A groundbreaking was held Friday.

Prior to the announcement, Cutler talked about the passion PulteGroup CEO Richard Dugas has for the people who protect America’s freedom. The Whitmore home is the third home the Pulte division -- which covers the area of Savannah, Ga., to Wilmington, N.C. -- has built for a wounded warrior in South Carolina since launching Built to Honor in 2013. The others are in Charleston and Beaufort.

“The coast of South Carolina is very heavily military so a lot of people on our team are military connected,” Cutler said. “The sergeant is facing an uphill battle. If moving here to Myrtle Beach will help him start a new life, we are happy to provide it. He has earned it. Our division is passionate about providing a home for a veteran. It’s a great opportunity.”

Pulte has donated the land in its development in Berkshire Forest and hopes are for construction to be completed so the family can move in by Christmas. The homebuilder is joined by a host of contractors, suppliers and vendors volunteering to help with the project.

In addition to paying off the mortgage, Pulte will have the house fully furnished, and will pay the taxes and homeowners fees for a time, according to Cutler.

“They won’t have to worry about a place to live and can just live,” Cutler said, adding that the value to Pulte is simply to provide a worthy family a home.

The home is about 3,600 square feet with six bedrooms and four and one-half baths, a three-car garage and large back yard, said Charlie Tipton, Pulte’s vice president of construction.

Tricking the family into coming to the ballgame was Coffman’s idea. “We say we embellish,” Coffman said about the little white lie she told to keep the surprise. “I told them I would be in this area interviewing several families. Of course, they are the only family.”

Coffman, who flew in from the OFH Texas headquarters, has worked closely with the Whitmores throughout the process of vetting wounded warriors for the program. What made this soldier standout from among others recommended by area VA hospitals and other military advocates, she said, was “his tenacity to stay in the service when he clearly could have retired.”

OFH has placed veterans in 159 homes in 27 states. The contract asks each family to live in the home at least five years and give OFH first right of refusal to purchase back the home at a minimal price if the family decides to move or sell.

Angela Nicholas can be reached at aknicholas28@gmail.com.