PALM BEACH COUNTY, Florida – On that day 13 years ago, Marine Lance Corporal Leonard Chong was on patrol in a convoy in Iraq when his vehicle stuck an improvised explosive device (IED) that ended his military career.
The recipient of Purple Heart was back in a convoy for another monumental moment Thursday when he received keys to a mortgage-free home. And it was the opening up to his case manager during recovery that made it happen.
Marine Leonard Chong said he looks forward to joining the Marine Corps as an infantryman in 2005. In 2008 he would complete his second assignment in Iraq.
“I really enjoyed being used. I was at home. I liked the rush. I think God put certain people on this earth to do certain things, ”Chong said.
As a “Point Man” on foot and “First Gun: Truck in Convoys” it was Leonard’s job to approach the enemy and discover unusual things.
“Back then I needed some form of discipline – I got the discipline. But everything else was very, very unexpected, ”he said.
The date was June 3, 2008 when his MRAP was hit by an IED while driving in a convoy. The explosion was so violent that he passed out for two days. He was initially transferred to the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland to begin his recovery. He is still suffering from traumatic brain injury and PTSD.
“I could have lost my life,” said Chong.
But he didn’t and was back in a convoy on Thursday. And for another life changing moment, a pair of mortgage-free keys arrives.
“It’s a new beginning, so to speak,” he said.
The keys are in part thanks to Chong’s former post-posting polytrauma and social worker who saw a different type of need.
“Life throws you troubles and financial difficulties, and just knowing you have this stable living environment is so huge for him and his family,” said Michelle Zielenski, Miami VA Medical Center Women Veterans Program manager.
In 2014 Zielenski had the idea to apply for a free home with Building Homes for Heroes. A nonprofit that, in partnership with sponsors like JPMorgan Chase, Advance Auto Parts, Truck Hero, and Lowes, has donated over 300 homes.
“When I opened up to her, everything started flowing,” said Chong.
Both he and Zielenski call it a match that goes beyond a building.
“Once you open up and let the right person in – especially a clerk like mine, you have everything you need,” Chong said.
To learn more about building houses for heroes, Click here.