Army Staff Sgt. Allen Hill is a lucky man, regardless of traumatic and injurious events crossing his path.
Hill, 43, is a National Guard and U.S. Army veteran who served nearly 20 years, including two tours in Iraq. He earned a Purple Heart for injuries sustained when an Improvised Explosive Device demolished a Humvee he was riding in. He has been in treatment for post-traumatic stress since the Nov. 1, 2007, incident and away from his wife and two children for much of that time. It was a dismal existence.
But earlier this year, on a hot August night, Hill and his family stood on a street in rural Franklin County, Kan., awaiting a life-changing event. Friends, neighbors, well-wishers, military members and American Legion Riders also waited. The Hill family was about to see their new home built by volunteers on the ABC television series Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.
"I have a loving wife, Gina, two great children - Makale and Dreyson - a great support network, and now a beautiful new home," Hill said days later. " I am a lucky man, yes I am."
It was a long and arduous path - nearly four years - leading to the moment that Hill and his family uttered the words, "driver, move that bus!" More than 3,000 of volunteers played a part in the seven-day build, including Kansas American Legion Riders who escorted volunteers to the building site during filming of the opening scene of the television show. And the Riders later escorted the Hill family to the reveal ceremony.
"The producers of the show asked us if we could assist, and of course, we agreed," said Don Behrens, department chairman of the Kansas American Legion Riders. "That's what we do. We support any effort we can to assist fellow veterans."
It turned out that Legion Riders played an unexpected role beyond that of escort. Hill was reluctant to participate in the reveal ceremony unless he was assured fellow veterans and military members would be there to support him. The producers agreed.
But let's rewind to the start.
While on patrol in Iraq four years ago this month, Hill was in a Humvee that was upended by an IED. As a result, he suffers continued post-traumatic stress, one of the signature wounds of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. It was a challenge, but after extensive treatment at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and the Warrior Transition Unit, Hill was far enough along in his recovery to be reunited with his family.
But upon return to his Ottawa, Kan.,home, Hill's gains toward recovery began to unravel. It was his home - located near a rock quarry and its frequent dynamite explosions - that posed the greatest danger. A nearby train rail yard with its unrelenting loud noise and vibrations exacerbated Hill's PTS reactions.
Sharp noises, vibrations and dimly-lit areas trigger a "fight or flight' condition that psychologically sends Hill back to that explosion in Iraq. It was not uncommon for Hill to bolt at any loud, sudden or unexpected sound, or for his family to find him wandering aimlessly in the street following such an incident. They feared he might be killed on the road by traffic.
To assist in his recovery, Hill was sent to a non-profit facility in Napa Valley called The Pathway Home. After extensive treatment, Hill told anyone who would listen that he had "got some of his mojo back" and wanted to return home. But returning to the environment surrounding his home was not an alternative.
Actress Glenn Close learned of Hill's predicament and nominated the Hill family for Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. Tom Weigand, president of the Ottawa Area Chamber of Commerce, through the Weigand family trust donated land in the Wheatland Hills housing development near Ottawa to build a new home for the Hill family. M.A.C Corporation and Canyon Creek Construction were selected for the project. The 4,000-square-foot home was completed in seven days.
Construction of the house and filming the Extreme Makeover episode was not without its challenges - ¬most notably heat. Triple-digit temperatures as high as 114 degrees at the building site greeted the cast, crew, volunteers and Legion Riders during the week.
"Almost 300 Legion Riders arrived at the building site the first day - expecting filming of the opening segment to take place as scheduled," Behrens said. "But delays left us waiting far too long on hot asphalt. We were getting overheated. A number of Riders became ill from the heat. At least one was taken to the hospital."
Fortunately, nearby neighbors invited Riders into their air-conditioned homes to cool down and offered them iced beverages to drink. Behrens later presented Department of Kansas plaques to the neighbors in appreciation.
"I don't know what might have happened had the neighbors not come to our rescue," Behrens later said. "They were welcome Samaritans."
Activities leading up to the reveal seven days later were unlike any other. Gone were the festive hoops and hollers. Ty Pennington, the host of the Extreme Makeover show, lowered his voice to a whisper. Hill, while recovering, remained very sensitive to loud or sudden noise.
Pennington, cast members and the Hill family stood between soldiers in their camouflage fatigues and the iconic Extreme Makeover bus. A hush enveloped the scene as a contingent of American Legion Riders approached on foot to present Hill with a welcome home flag signed by Riders participating in the event.
Tears welled in Hills eyes as the bus slowly pulled away revealing his new home - a home far from the rock quarry and rail yard, a home designed to promote a quiet environment for the family and Hill's service dog, Frankie. Actress Glenn Close and Hill hugged as the silent crowd across the road waved American flags and held up signs of support.
"This is more than I could ever imagine," Hill whispered, wiping away the tears rolling down his face. " I know that saying thank you is not enough, but thank you, thank you, thank you."
And then Hill, Gina, Makale and Dreyson opened the door to their new home and crossed the threshold to a new life - a life filled with promise.
The Hill family segment airs Friday night at 8 p.m. EST on ABC.