Beneath the gray skies and steady rain, there was a bright spot in Blairsville Friday afternoon — the home of Cory Howard.
Howard, 31, a Purple Heart recipient and retired Marine, recently had his house renovated as part of the efforts of RenovatingHope, a national nonprofit organization that provides home repairs to military veterans and active-service members.
Neighbors, friends and family as well as county officials, USO representatives and several local veterans organizations, gathered at the end of West First Avenue to recognize Cory Howard and the renovation group’s efforts.
“This is a community that cares,” Indiana County Commissioner Rodney Ruddock told those gathered in and around a tent outside of Howard’s home. “It’s an outstanding commitment that’s been made.”
That commitment is one that Howard knew was strong when, more than two months ago, RenovatingHope founder and CEO Paul S. Hoffecker first visited the two-story Blairsville home, about 100 years old and badly in need of repairs.
“‘I got your back.’ That’s what he said,” Howard remembered as he sat in his dining room after the ceremony.
“Those words mean everything to a Marine.”
And those words mean everything to Howard’s wife, Risa, 23, as well.
“I didn’t even want to live here,” she said. “Now, I never want to leave.”
On that first visit, Hoffecker saw deteriorating walls. An unsafe handrail. A bathtub that had to be drained with pots and pans. The home, a fixer upper that had deteriorated over time, was badly in need of repair.
The state of the house was wearing on the couple, who married about a year ago and have a 1-year-old daughter, Madison.
“It was very stressful,” Howard said. “Me, I’m used to it. I lived in the barracks and lived in Iraq. For me, my bed (during his service) was a hole dug in the ground. So I was okay with it. But my wife wasn’t.”
Over the course of about six weeks, RenovatingHope, along with those from the Greensburg Home Depot, Pynos Construction and other businesses and community organizations, transformed the home with renovations like a new kitchen, new plumbing, heating and air conditioning systems and appliances.
“It’s everything to us,” Howard said. “The house is safe. Our walls aren’t crumbling. Something was provided that I wasn’t able to provide for my family.”
Howard was seriously injured in 2007 during his final deployment to Iraq, where he had been stationed in the city of Fallujah. An IED detonated under his vehicle. He was burned on more than 30 percent of his body. His right foot was shattered. His body was wounded by shrapnel.
Medically retired after the incident, he had served as a Marine for seven years.
In addition to receiving a Purple Heart, Howard had earlier been recognized with a Meritorious Mast for providing lifesaving care to three fellow Marines wounded by an IED.
Now a stay-at-home dad, Howard credits the renovations with helping to improve his family’s day-to-day life.
“We were really at a breaking point,” he said. “It was almost a guessing game, what was going to break next.”
Now, the home is a solid foundation for the young family. Howard credits RenovatingHope and those in the community for helping to build that.
“I think the whole point of it is to let us take care of it while you do your thing,” Howard said. “You see the results of what happens. I’m still in awe.”
For his mother, Leslie Howard, who flew in from California for Friday’s event, nothing could be better.
“It’s kind of like today is the start of a new beginning for our family,” she said.