Friday, October 21, 2016 marked the second homecoming for U.S. Army Sgt. Matthew White. The first was in 2010 when he returned from Afghanistan, wounded by an IED explosion and facing months, if not years, of surgeries and rehabilitation. That horrific event set him on a journey that finally came full circle last Friday.
On a beautiful Indian summer day in Prince William County, VA – family, friends, former combat veterans and a legion of fans gathered to see this remarkable young man receive a well-deserved award – a 100% mortgage-free home through PulteGroup’s Built to Honor program. An “award” that one speaker clarified, “he paid for with his blood on the battlefield.”
To say it was emotional would be an understatement. Escorted by a motorcade of former combat vets, saluted by a color guard and serenaded by 100+ people singing the national anthem with hands on their hearts, it’s hard not to be moved by the reminder of the sacrifices our veterans make every day.
But for us, the emotion was much more personal.
To explain, we have to tell you a little more about our relationship with Matthew over the past few years. It started when a friend of his, often referred to as “his second Mom” contacted us about the possibility of Matthew becoming a Softie. He obviously had no knowledge that she’d done it since he politely turned us down over and over again. We’re firm believers that you make your own luck so, not to be deterred by 12 months of “sorry, but no thanks,” we reached out for the umpteenth time and invited him to be our guest at that year’s Pawject Runway. The stars must have been aligned because he relented and agreed to join us that night. (We were so worried about scaring him off, we decided NOT to tell him until that evening that he’d also be walking the runway.) Soon after, we got to meet the love of his life, Nike, a happy-go-lucky, wiggly butt girl at their official Soft Side shoot.
While Matthew is a very private person, Nike is anything but. If you’ve got a pulse, she wants to give you hello licks and dance around you with joy. It’s easy to understand what that kind of unbridled happiness and unconditional love can mean to anyone going through a rough patch. And Matthew is quite honest about having had his share of rough patches dealing first with the loss of his leg and then fighting his way back to compete in marathons, scuba diving and mountain climbing. Certainly those physical accomplishments make him one in-a-million, but the real essence of this American hero is his passion, commitment and heart.
Since the day we met, Matthew has been first in line to help – whether that means driving up from Washington to be a guest bartender, attending any one of a number of our fundraising events or joining us for a behind-the-scenes visit to a Maryland prison to learn about their training program for service dogs. All we have to do is ask and Matthew is there. In fact, we could go on forever listing all the things he’s done, but it wouldn’t do him justice because since joining the Soft Side team, Matthew has found a way to include us in almost every aspect of his life.
Knowing that, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise when Matthew first called to say he wanted to use his house dedication as a way to help animals. PulteGroup, the company behind the Built to Honor program, had already decided to make a food drive part of the day’s activities and Matthew wanted to expand that to include animals. Would we be okay with that? Uhhh, yeah. Ironically, over the past year, we had tried desperately to convince others to do that very thing. Although many of the shelters have contracts with major food companies, there’s an entire underground community that takes care of Baltimore’s kitty colonies and they’re always fighting to keep their heads above water. Many only get by because of the generosity of friends or, in some cases, police officers who purchase cat supplies and deliver to the neediest. A food drive like this would be manna from heaven.
As the dedication day grew closer, Matthew began to worry. Would the effort be successful? Would enough people come through? That was when he decided to take it one step further and start contacting companies. His first call was to Pet Valu and they delivered in a big way. A few days prior to the dedication, Matthew picked up over $1000 worth of donated pet food and supplies from Pet Valu – an amazing jumpstart to what would prove to be a very special day.
Fast forward to October 21, 2016. The weather reports were calling for storms, but Mother Nature wasn’t going to let anything rain on Matthew’s parade. The sun came out in full force and everything on two legs and four paws turned out to wish him well and dedicate the house that love built.
Built to Honor is an incredible program and one that truly sets Pulte Group apart from the crowd. They refer to it as a “21st century barn raising” – a chance to honor wounded vets by giving them a home for life. And we’re not just talking any home, this one was designed, decorated and fully furnished to Matthew’s taste and specifications, compliments of the Rachael Ray Collection. (As a huge Cleveland Browns fan, Matthew’s favorite color orange figures prominently and beautifully!)
As each speaker took the podium, it was evident that the Pulte Group and the other companies who had come together to do this were more in awe of their recipient than they were in their own accomplishments. It’s understandable if you’ve ever met Matthew. There’s a quiet strength about him and yet when he took the microphone, he explained without hesitation about what this effort meant to him. He talked about the months at Walter Reed and the friends who pulled him through. He talked about the impact Nike had made in his recovery and the joy at being able to recently add another rescue pup, Toffee, to his family. He also talked about the difficulty of trying to find an apartment that would rent to a “pit bull” Dad and the 15 tries he went through before finally finding one. Because of the Built to Honor program, that is something that Matthew and his four-legged family will never have to worry about again.
As the program drew to a close that day, one speaker implored, “Our country needs to do better at taking care of each other.” If October 21 was any indication, Pulte Group is certainly doing their part and, for that matter, so is Sgt. Matthew White. This weekend, he’ll be making the trek to Baltimore once again – this time with a carload of food and supplies for the animals at BARCS and the Homeless Cats of Cherry Hill.
Welcome home, Matthew. Our country, our animals and all of us at Show Your Soft Side are honored to have you on our side.
Matthew White will be appearing on the Rachael Ray Show on Veterans Day, Friday November 11. We suggest you tune in and get your faith in humanity restored.
Photography compliments of Virgil Ocampo Photography