Monday, February 14, 2011/lk
"Without further ado, welcome home soldier," said Spec. Kevin Pannell as he handed the keys of the 4025 Nastasi Drive home in Parkdale to Ssgt. Christian Bagge.
Pannell, 33, and Bagge, 29, are both double amputees who had residences built to accommodate their wheelchairs by Homes for Our Troops, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit organization.
Pannell lost both legs in an enemy grenade ambush during a 2004 deployment to Iraq and he and his wife moved into their new Sandy home in December. He met Bagge in 2005 when the combat veteran was undergoing medical treatment at Walter Reed Army Medical Center for the loss of both legs.
Bagge, who grew up in Mosier, deployed to Iraq in 2004 with other Oregon National Guard soldiers from The Dalles Armory. He lost his legs following the June 3, 2005, explosion of two bombs while on a routine road-clearing mission about 100 miles north of Baghdad.
He said being visited by Pannell, who walked into his hospital room on prosthetic legs, gave him hope for the future. If mobility were again possible, then Bagge, an avid outdoorsman, knew that some normalcy could be restored to his life. Just three months before the tragedy occurred, Christian and Melissa (Eagy), a native of The Dalles, had married and he wanted their plans for the future to continue as unimpeded as possible.
"Soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines are people who understand sacrifice and what it means to move on; I'm always impressed by people who have served," said Bagge.
He thanked the many veterans in the crowd of more than 200 people who had come to the key ceremony organized by Homes and Advantis Credit Union of Milwaukie, which raised $150,000 for the project. The volunteer labor force that began working on the home last August was supervised by Kase Construction of The Dalles.
The Gorge Heroes Club assisted with meals and other support for the Build Brigade in August and the Feb. 5 key ceremony.
Also present at Saturday's event were 15 soldiers from Alpha Company assigned to The Dalles Armory. Three of these infantrymen had been with Bagge when the explosion occurred and struggled to keep him alive while awaiting the arrival of a medevac helicopter to transport him off the battlefield.
"I would not be here today if these men from my platoon - Nick Mendez, Jeremy Kitchen and Adam Campbell - had not worked so hard to save my life," said Bagge.
"Every day, when they (Mendez, Kitchen and Campbell) wake up they remember what happened and these guys suffer. I love you all and I'm proud that you are here today," he said. "I will always be proud of the almost eight years that I served my country."
He then thanked all of the community members and contractors who had volunteered time to help build the single-story house that provides him with easy access to every room. He and Melissa are now raising two young children, Noah and Brynne, so a home that allows him to be easily mobile is even more appreciated.
"It's just so amazing that so many people I've never met are here supporting me and that's a testament to our country," said Bagge.
He asked those in attendance to remember that even as the ceremony took place, and for a moment every day, there were military personnel fighting for America's freedoms and their lives on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Oregon Rep. Mark Johnson, the father of a deployed Army officer, and Sen. Chuck Thomsen welcomed the Bagges to Hood River County, where they both reside, and invited him to visit Salem.
"I'd be honored to have you as my guest of honor on the floor of the House," said Johnson after commenting that the Bagge house stood as a legacy to American generosity and patriotism.
John Gonsalves, founder and president of Homes for Our Troops, said there were a growing number of triple and quadruple amputees at Walter Reed and the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., in recent months. He said these injuries were a result of the enemy adapting to America's armoring vehicles for better troop protection by building bigger bombs.
"Although we should be grateful for their survival, we also have to look into the mirror as Americans and ask, 'What do we owe them?'" said Gonsalves. "We need to be in a position where every community is doing what we did here."
He said more than 1,000 homes were needed across the nation for soldiers and Marines with severe disabilities brought by service on the front lines.
The Dalles soldiers had helped the Bagges load the furniture from their The Dalles home into a U-Haul truck on Friday. They stayed after the ceremony to move the family's belongings into the new 2,600-square-foot residence.
"Helping Christian get moved in and being there to honor his family at the key ceremony can't make up for the sacrifices they have made on behalf of this country but will help provide them with an opportunity to re-establish themselves," said 2nd Lt. Brian Fike, commander of The Dalles unit. "We are his brothers in arms and this is just the right thing to do."
Also pitching in to help the Bagges move in were emergency responders from the Parkdale, West Side, Hood River, Odell and Pine Grove fire departments. They had escorted the family to their new home via fire engine in a Highway 35 processional that was also joined by a vehicle from the Oregon State Police.
The Patriot Guard Riders, under the direction of captain Rod Runyon, a The Dalles resident, had formed a flag line at the entrance to the private road and outside the Bagge house.
Safeway employees from Hood River delivered more than $500 of goods - everything from diapers to cooking spices - and handed the Bagges $300 in gift certificates after the ceremony. Prior to his military service, Christian had worked for the store and Linda Hutson, head clerk, said the employees are honored to have them in Hood River County and plan to continue their support.
"We have adopted them; they are part of the family now," she said.