ST. PETERSBURG — While others his age went to college parties or planned careers, Stephen Peterson was learning how to walk again after an explosion in Afghanistan took his right leg.
Peterson was six months into his Army tour as part of Operation Enduring Freedom on July 1, 2011, when a bomb exploded beneath his vehicle and tore off his leg above the knee.
Today, the agile 23-year-old hardly looks like a wounded veteran. He surfs and goes spearfishing with his prosthetic leg.
With the help of several local charities, Peterson is getting a fresh start at civilian life in St. Petersburg with a newly-built, mortgage-free home.
He’s the second young veteran served by a coalition of groups looking to provide new homes in the Tampa Bay area for men and women injured in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
On Friday, a big crowd of family, friends, local leaders and neighbors welcomed Peterson to his new home on 12th Avenue South.
“Actually starting my life, this is a good foundation for me, for my future,” said Peterson, who lived on Florida’s east coast before enlisting in the Army.
Nearly 2,000 troops have lost limbs in the recent conflicts.
Those with serious injuries can find it difficult to find an affordable place to stay that’s easy to get around without assistance, such as Charlie Lemon, who lost both his legs about the same time as Peterson while serving in Iraq.
The nonprofit Operation Finally Home partnered with former Tampa Bay Buccaneer Martin Gramatica’s family-owned business, Gramatica SIPS International, and Community Partners in Revitalization to build a home for Lemon in South Tampa that’s wheelchair accessible.
“I’m fully independent, I live by myself, me and my little dogs,” said Lemon.
“Being in the military, you work in a team, but you also learn how to take care of yourself.”
While Lemon and Peterson were deployed in different nations in 2011, the two met and became friends during a long rehabilitation at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas.
Lemon, who has become a spokesman for veteran housing, suggested Peterson as a good candidate for Operation Finally Home.
The nonprofit coalition owns a vacant lot donated by the city across the street from Peterson’s new 1,600-square-foot home and another in Clearwater. Both are slated for construction next year and there are plans for more across the area.
Peterson’s home also is meant to add new life into an economically depressed part of the city by bringing in new homeowners to once empty spaces.
“Not only are we lifting up this veteran, but we’re also lifting up South St. Petersburg,” St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman said Friday.
A host of local groups pitched in for everything from financing to building materials, including the Gramatica Family Foundation, which is raising funds for several more veteran homes.
Argentine-born Martin Gramatica said it can be easy to take freedom for granted in the United States, and providing a home for returning soldiers is one way to repay them for their sacrifice.
“They’ve earned everything they get from now on. What every military person does for us, for our freedom, there is nothing that is given to them. They earned every bit of it,” he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.