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South Tampa News

Injured Army veteran builds own house

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Published:   |   Updated: March 19, 2013 at 12:42 AM
TAMPA -

Charlie Lemon lost his legs to a bomb in Iraq, but he is working to create a normal life and that includes working on his new house on Gray Street.

Army tank gunner Charlie Lemon was told he would never walk again.

On June 8, 2011, while on a routine escort mission in Iraq, Lemon, 29, lost both his legs when the armored vehicle he was riding in was destroyed by an improvised explosive device. He was 10 months into a 12-month deployment with the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment from Fort Hood, Texas.

The vehicle's driver and Lemon's Friend, Matthew England, was killed.

Lemon has defied the odds.

Months after he was injured and underwent multiple surgeries, he had begun walking short distances on prosthetic legs. In May, he stood as Brig. Gen. Joseph DiSalvo awarded him a Purple Heart.

Walking was just the beginning.

Lemon has become a certified scuba diver and has snow skied. He volunteered with Habitat for Humanity twice. At the work sites, he would get out of his wheelchair, lay on the ground and paint baseboards.

He's also eager to go skydiving, according to his mother, Cherl Towns.

"He is a perfect kid," she said. "He was and always will be a perfect child."

One decision at a time, Lemon is reaffirming his life by expanding his boundaries for what's "normal."

By November, Lemon will become a first-time homeowner.

Recently, Lemon joined family, friends and volunteers to begin raising the walls on a custom-built, mortgage-free house on Gray Street in the North Hyde Park neighborhood.

Operation Finally Home, a nonprofit that provides homes for wounded and disabled veterans and war widows, is partnering with former Tampa Bay Buccaneer Martin Gramatica's family-owned business, Gramatica SIPS International, and Community Partners in Revitalization/Sunstone Construction to build the house.

Move-in day likely will be in October or November. Meanwhile, Lemon is completing rehabilitation at the San Antonio Military Medical Center in Texas.

He helped raise the first wall panel and attached it to a second panel with a framing nail gun. "I love you guys," he told those gathered to help raise the walls of his new home. "We're family now. Let's build this."

Home ownership will give him independence, said Lemon.

The house will be built for accessibility, with wide hallways and easy to reach appliances. "It's awesome," he said. "I'll live here freely and not worry about someone being there all the time."

The pre-cut wall panels, being donated by Gramatica SIPS International, are environmentally friendly building products that boost energy efficiency and meet wind load standards in the event of hurricanes.

The Gramatica brothers — Martin, Bill and Santiago — opened their business several years ago in Sarasota but are moving to East Tampa. Martin Gramatica was the kicker for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers; Bill and Santiago Gramatica were kickers for the University of South Florida and teams in the Arena Football League.

Martin Gramatica said he hopes to help with other homes for veterans in the future.

"This is a special day for us," he said as construction of Lemon's home was starting. "He never complains about anything. What little we do for him is nothing compared to what he did in war."

The house also is a first for Community Partners in Revitalization/Sunstone Construction. But Brian Lamb, chief executive officer, said he hopes to complete as many as 10 homes in the next year for veterans like Lemon.

A Winter Haven native, Lemon lived in Tampa for about eight years before volunteering for the Army. He had worked as a bartender and had some college credits, and thought perhaps of returning to college on the G.I. bill.

Friends and family have been by his side since his medical flight from Iraq. His mother lives in Polk County. She rushed to meet Lemon's flight when it landed in the United States in transit to Texas still dressed in what she wore when she left home — Army-style fatigues.

A brigadier general walking through the plane to comfort wounded soldiers thought she was one of the crew. Towns said she startled him with a hug and handed him a small "thank you" card, without giving him her name or learning his.

Months later, that same general — Joseph DiSalvo — gave her son the Purple Heart. He remembered Towns and reached inside his pocket to find the card she had given him.

Towns hands out more than cards nowadays. She walks up to everyone in uniform with a message and open arms.

["I tell them] 'I am an Army mom, and I want a hug.'"


ksteele@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7652

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