His mission: Build mortgage-free homes for wounded veterans
In World War II, Bill Criswell served his country with the Seabees, the U.S. Navy’s construction battalion, which has built military bases, hospitals, bridges and roads around the world.
Their motto: “We build. We fight. Can do!”
Nearly 70 years later, Criswell, 88, of Windermere directs “Home at Last,” a not-for-profit group that reflects the spirit of the Seabees. The group, affiliated with West Orange Habitat for Humanity, builds mortgage-free homes for combat-wounded veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
Under Criswell’s leadership, Home at Last has built five homes worth more than $1.5 million — all with donated labor and materials.
“None of this would ever have been possible without Bill,” said Marcus Griffin, 29, a retired Army specialist who suffered permanent critical injuries in an explosion in Iraq in 2008 and whose family was selected by Home at Last to receive the second home the group built.
Criswell, who retired from H.C. Buchanan Concrete in Orlando, created Home at Last in 2007 to help soldiers and their families.
“I kept reading in the paper during the height of the Iraqi war about young men coming back home with the loss of legs, the loss of arms, particularly from [improvised explosive devices], which seemed to be the Iraqi weapon of choice. These were young men, 22 or 23, and they faced a lifetime of adjustment from physical losses. Many had young families,” said Criswell, who was married for 46 years.
“I kept thinking, ‘We can do something about this. We should do something about this.'”
After his wife, Helen, died in 1997, Criswell funneled his energy into Habitat for Humanity, the international Christian charity that builds and repairs simple homes, usually for working-poor families. He thought Habitat’s model could be applied to help returning veterans.
“Dad’s an old-school veteran,” said Holly Hansen, his only child. “He’d say, ‘If we can build homes for people in need, what about our veterans?’ He knew a lot of people in the building trades from his years in industry.”
For his work with Home at Last, Criswell was selected as one of Major League Baseball’s “All-Stars Among Us” in 2010, an honor recognizing individuals who serve their communities in extraordinary ways. He attended MLB’s 2010 All-Star Game in Anaheim, Calif., as a guest of the Tampa Bay Rays.
But then, like now, as Home at Last prepares to begin its sixth project, Criswell brushed off praise for himself. He insisted all of the heavy lifting has been done by America’s veterans and the contractors, skilled workers and other volunteers who donate their time and labor to build the homes.
“That’s Bill,” said John Russo of Winter Park Construction, which has managed the construction of every Home at Last project. “He’s done a great job of finding the right people to be partners. But he’s the motivation and vision behind the whole concept, the fuel that keeps it going.”
Volunteers and donors participate eagerly, said Bryan Butcher of Hensel Phelps Construction Co. in Orlando, which provided a full-time, on-site superintendent for the recently completed home of U.S. Marine Cpl. Ronald Barnes, who lost his legs in an explosion in Afghanistan.
The homes are usually twice the size of the typical Habitat house and specially adapted to accommodate the soldier’s disability.
“We all feel it’s the least we can do to help these young men and women who have written a blank check for us with literally their lives,” Butcher said. “That’s how Bill has pitched it. He didn’t twist any arms. He talked about the need to support our local soldiers, our wounded warriors. It struck a chord with me: Just tell me where I have to be and when.”
For Criswell, the job’s far from finished.
He said the need is greater than the supply of special homes for disabled veterans. He pointed out, however, that Habitat has 1,500 affiliates in the U.S.
“If each just built one [home] for a veteran, think what we could accomplish,” he said.
Home At Last founder Bill Criswell, left (Courtesy of Holly Hansen )
December 29, 2013|By Stephen Hudak, Orlando Sentinel