PALM BEACH COUNTY, Fla. — Thirteen years ago on this day, Marine Lance Corporal Leonard Chong was on patrol in a convoy in Iraq when his vehicle stuck an improvised explosive device (IED) ending his military career.
The Purple Heart recipient was back in a convoy Thursday for another monumental moment as he received the keys to a mortgage-free home. And it was opening up to his case manager during recovery that made it possible.
Marine Leonard Chong said he was excited to enlist into the Marine Corps as an infantryman in 2005. By 2008 he’d be on his second deployment in Iraq.
“I actually enjoyed being deployed. I was at home. I liked the rush. I think God placed certain people on this Earth to do certain things,” Chong said.
As a “point man” on foot and “first gun": truck in convoys Leonard’s job was to close in on the enemy and spot anything out of the ordinary.
“At the time I needed some form of discipline — I got the discipline. But everything else was very, very unexpected,” he said.
The date was June 3, 2008, while riding in a convoy his MRAP was struck by an IED. The blast was so severe that it rendered him unconscious for two days. He was initially transferred to the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland to begin his recovery. He still suffers from a traumatic brain injury and PTSD.
”I could have lost my life,” Chong said.
But he didn’t and on Thursday he was back in a convoy. And arriving for another life-changing moment a pair of mortgage-free keys.
”It’s a fresh start so to speak,” he said.
The keys are thanks in part to Chong’s former polytrauma and post-deployment social worker who recognized another type of need.
”Life throws problems at you and financial difficulties at you and just knowing that he has this stable living environment is so huge for him and for his family,” said Michelle Zielenski, Miami VA Medical Center Women Veterans program manager.
In 2014, it was Zielenski’s idea to apply for a free home with Building Homes for Heroes. A non-profit that’s gifted over 300 homes in partnership with sponsors including JPMorgan Chase, Advance Auto Parts, Truck Hero and Lowes.
“Once I opened up to her everything started to flow,” Chong said.
Both he and Zielenski call it a match that goes beyond a building.
“Once you open up and let the right person in — especially a case worker like mine you’ll get everything to you that’s necessary,” Chong said.
To learn more about Building Homes for Heroes, click here.