Veteran, family get first look at donated home

Bank and foundation team up to provide houses

Jon Gardner, center, of Bank of America talks to the Whitaker family as he presents the key to their new home in Ocala on Monday.

Alan Youngblood/Star-Banner
Published: Monday, November 25, 2013 at 3:51 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, November 25, 2013 at 3:51 p.m.

The past 12 years have tested Jamie and Della Whitaker.

Jamie Whitaker survived three tours in Iraq and just as many IED attacks. Badly wounded in one, Whitaker struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder. He also suffered a series of heart attacks starting in 2011, which required bypass surgery and a defibrillator.

All the while, Della Whitaker has worked hard to keep their three children, including the youngest, Jonathan "Zeke," who has autism, safe and healthy. She also has cared for her husband as he deals with his health issues. The family of five have done it while living in a 900-square-foot apartment in Georgia. Jamie Whitaker grew up in Lake City.

On Monday, the family arrived in Ocala to see, for the first time, their new 1,700-square-foot house, donated to them by Bank of America through the Military Warriors Support Foundation.

"We're home," said Della, as she hugged Jaime upon entering the house.

The family includes sons James, 19, Jacob, 10 and Zeke, 8.

"This is so beautiful. Thank you so much," said Della Whitaker.

The house was a bank-owned property and remained vacant for some time. Renovations that cost $25,000 were made to the house before it was donated to the Whitakers.

"We have been really doing this, supporting military veterans, since the 1920s. Here's a way, as we look at all the veterans coming home and we look at the housing market how it is, and here is an opportunity we have to make a difference," said Jon Gardner of Bank of America.

The bank hopes to donate about 1,000 homes across the country to veterans, including about 35 in the Ocala and Gainesville area.

"When you've got a home that's vacant and you put a responsible family in that house, that's a great way to revitalize a neighborhood. It's also an opportunity to help a veteran and hero put down roots right here in our community," Gardner said.

Jamie Whitaker joined the U.S. Army when he was 18. After nearly five years he left the Army and became a corrections officer at the Florida State Prison in Starke. After nearly six years there, he wanted to go back into the Army.

"The wife didn't want me to go back in the Army. She said, ‘Don't go back. If you join the Army there will be a war.' I said, ‘No there won't,' " Whitaker said. "I graduated basic training on Sept. 6, 2001."

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Whitaker spent 39 months in Iraq. His first improvised explosive device (IED) attack in 2005 was the worst.

"On my very last combat patrol, we ran over a significant IED," Whitaker said.

The bomb tore through the Humvee in which he was riding. The driver took the worst of the blast and ended up losing both legs. Whitaker, who was sitting behind the driver, took numerous pieces of shrapnel, mostly to the left side of his body. He was hit from the head to his leg, with his left hand taking the worst of it.

He later was awarded the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star.

Despite his wounds, he returned to combat two more times. In his second tour, his units were hit by two more IEDs. This time, however, they were in an armored Bradley Fighting Vehicle and the shrapnel did not penetrate.

"It really rung my bell though," said Whitaker, who has a German shepherd service dog named Baron, which helps him deal with his PTSD.

"You guys don't know how much we really appreciate this. It's a dream come true," he said of the family's new home.

This year will be the first time the entire family will be together for Thanksgiving since 2005.

"We are truly blessed with this. You just don't understand. It's coming at a great time on Thanksgiving. Because we have not, as a family, had a Thanksgiving with all of us together in years. It means a lot," Della Whitaker said.

It also means a lot to Zeke, who will have a proper place to hang his hammock. He calls it his "happy thoughts" hammock.

"He gets in it and it forms sort of like a cocoon. He goes there to play the recorder. It makes him feel safe," Della Whitaker said.

As the adults talked Monday, Zeke watched intently and then spoke: "I feel so lucky for us," he said.

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