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Serviceman sees 'dream' repaired

Stuart News - 1/12/2018

INDIAN RIVER COUNTY - Robert Gingras has lived in his Vero Lake Estates home for 10 years.

Gingras, 59, a decorated veteran who spent 10 years in the Air Force, said it's quiet in the northwest county neighborhood, and he likes that.

"You sit on the patio at nighttime, you can hear cows a block and a half away. There's a donkey back there. At about 11 o'clock at night, he starts hee-hawing. It's been fun," he said.

Gingras shares the spacious property with a family of four Siberian huskies: Sapphire, Ice, Hazel and Nanook.

"This has been a dream I've had for along, long time: owning my own house and everything. Now that I do, I don't know if I want it, because it's so much work that I can't do it," he said.

Painting the front of his house took all winter, he said. Mowing the grass can put him out for a couple days, with all the bumps in the lawn agitating his neck and back.

But with the help of the Veterans Council of Indian River County, he's finally getting some help.

In the past couple of years, the council has helped him replace his roof, install a new air-conditioning system and cut down a tree whose roots put the houses's foundation at risk.

Connecting veterans

The council helps connect Indian River County's 15,000 veterans in need with organizations that provide goods and services, program manager Doy Demsick said.

Indian River County is unique in that 13 percent of the population are veterans, about double the national average, Demsick said.

The council connected Gingras with Upward American Veterans to fund work on his property in the 8100 block of 92nd Avenue, helping him secure grants from Habitat for Humanity and the Home Depot Foundation.

Thursday, volunteers from the Home Depot Foundation leveled out Gingras' yard, which was destroyed by years of flooding.

"In the summertime during rainy season, I'm pretty much underwater here for six months. Every time it rains, the water will sit there for about a week," he said.

Things got even worse in September when Hurricane Irma hit. Gingras said storm drains near Vero Lake Estates became clogged with debris. Water sat in his yard for weeks.

The workers spread two truckloads of soil, 800 square feet of sod and a pallet stacked high with mulch across the yard, leaving it neatly landscaped by late afternoon.

"It's going to be nice next time I ride my mower and don't have to go bump-bump-bump-bump over all these tree roots and stuff," he said. "It'll make a big difference."

The supplies were all provided by the Home Depot Foundation as part of a $3,000 grant. Employees from the Sebastian Home Depot location volunteered their time under the supervision of George Towle.

"These are my best friends today," Gingras said, smiling as Towle drove past with a tractor-filled with rich black soil.

10 years of service

Gingras grew up in Rhode Island and joined the Air Force at 19.

His first assignment was in Guam, where he was crew chief on a C-130, a four-engine plane used for transporting cargo and taking weather measurements during storms.

He received his first award there, a certificate from the weather squadron.

After the two-year assignment, he was sent to Arkansas. Then Denver for training on F-16 fighter jets, followed by an assignment working with the jets in Utah.

He began experiencing pain in his neck and back at 21, while still in Guam, although there was no clear explanation why. It wasn't until he was sent to Germany in the mid-80s that his pain spread to his leg and began to affect his duties.

"I couldn't work on the flight line anymore, around moving airplanes and stuff, so I got an office job at that point," he recalled.

He worked with engineers and architects to build a hangar at the base, receiving a couple overseas extended tour ribbons in the process.

A medical board eventually determined he was unable to continue his service and he was honorably discharged in 1987.

Gingras moved to Florida a year later, taking classes at Broward College for five years.

He was two classes away from a computer-aided design degree, working for an architecture firm in North Miami Beach, when his disability interfered again.

"I came to the conclusion that I couldn't sit at a computer all day because of my neck and back," he said. "I needed to be moving around a little more."

He petitioned the VA to change his course of study and pivoted to physical therapy, earning a degree in the early 1990s.

He worked for less than a year before a patient grabbed onto his neck, ending his career.

"He was 6-5, 250 pounds. Big guy," Gingras recalled. "He lost his balance and started pulling away from me with his hand around my head. That was the point when all those discs started herniating in my lower back. It was a shame. All those years in school, I only worked for six to eight months. That was it – never worked again."

He had surgery on his neck soon after. He continues to get physical therapy through the VA, and is considering having another surgery to further stabilize his vertebrae.

Gingras began receiving social security benefits and eventually moved north to Indian River County.

"On my budget, I'm lucky if there's $100, $150 at the end of the month to try and get something done around here," he said.

That's why the Veteran's Council services Gingras was connected with were so vital.

"You happy with it?" Towle, who supervised Home Depot's volunteers Thursday, asked Gingras during a short break in the landscaping project in the early afternoon.

"Oh yeah, defeinitely," Gingras said.

"That's all that matters," Towle smiled, and went back to work.


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