BALTIMORE — The floors were lacquered and shining, the grass was mowed and the handicapped-access tracks and ramps in the new $800,000 home in Pasadena, Md., were ready for use.
Just miles away in Washington, Sgt. David Battle, a triple amputee injured in Iraq, sat in the small suite that he, his wife Lakeisa, and four children have shared at Walter Reed Army Medical Center for the past year and a half.
Their bags were packed. A nonprofit group, Homes for Our Troops, and hundreds of Maryland volunteers had built the family a home from scratch. The Battles were to accept the keys at a ceremony Thursday.
It never took place.
The night before, organization officials learned that the Battles already own two homes in Georgia, a fact officials said the family concealed until confronted with the evidence Wednesday.
"We're shocked," said John Gonsalves, the founder of Homes for Our Troops, which has helped build 40 houses for injured veterans in 30 states. "It's disappointing anyone would take advantage of a community's big heart this way."
A tearful Lakeisa Battle said the family didn't know they had to disclose ownership of other properties, which she said they bought as investments after arrangements for the new Maryland house were set.
The tangled story began in 2007 when Battle, an infantry private, was deployed to Iraq. He'd been patrolling Baghdad for six months when he stepped on a roadside land mine. The blast blew off his right arm and cost him both legs. Battle spent six months in a coma and didn't wake up until he was at Walter Reed, where he has been undergoing intensive physical therapy.
"It's a new phase of your life," Battle said recently, displaying the quiet, matter-of-fact attitude that has impressed the staff. "You just cope."
The couple have been married three years; they met while David Battle was stationed at Ft. Stewart, Ga.
She contacted Homes for Our Troops in early 2008 when her husband was still unconscious.
"We're desperate for a place to live," she told a newspaper at the time, saying they had no permanent home for a large family. "We're so grateful for this opportunity."
Representatives of the organization interviewed the Battles to determine their financial need. They asked, as they always do, where the Battles wanted to live (Maryland, to be close to Walter Reed), showed them homes in the region, and acquired the 1.5-acre parcel on which to build.
In their contract with Homes for Our Troops, the family agreed, among other conditions, not to falsify or "intentionally omit information" that could be used to determine eligibility.
Arrisbrook Builders, a company founded by Spencer Padgett and Aaron Drummond, ex-Marines who graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy, became general contractors for the project, pitching in more than $70,000 worth of labor and time. Homes for Our Troops donates up to 40% of the cost for each specially designed house, organizing volunteers to provide the rest.
Drummond, who called the project "a great way for us to give back to those who sacrifice so much," said he put the word out and "people came out of the woodwork to help."
Amenities in the 2,400-square-foot house include low-rise cabinets, a harness attached to a ceiling track that allows wheelchair-free movement, and an absence of thresholds between rooms.
Construction began in October 2008, which is when the Battles used a $100,000 compensatory payment from the Army to buy two houses in Fayetteville, Ga., according to records on file with Clayton County, Ga. The Patriot Guard Riders, a Georgia-based nonprofit, contributed labor to make one of those houses wheelchair-accessible.
Gonsalves said a Google alert brought that project to his attention several weeks ago, but Lakeisa Battle told him that a cousin owned the home and that the upgrades were done to let Battle visit.
"That's honestly the last thought I gave it," he said.
Then last week, a Georgia TV reporter called to tell him the Battles were to attend a ceremony in Fayetteville on Saturday. While reporting on the upcoming event in Georgia, the reporter learned of the home-building project in Maryland, called Gonsalves and faxed him a copy of the deed to one of the Georgia houses.
On Thursday, Lakeisa Battle admitted owning the Georgia houses, but said the family didn't think her contract with Homes for Our Troops required them to disclose investment properties. Records show the foreclosed homes had been purchased for a combined $48,950.
"We don't know what we're going to do now," she said.
David Battle declined to comment.
Gonsalves said his next step would be to find another disabled veteran to move in to the house. The waiting list is long, he said, with many facing injuries more severe than Battle's. Some have no homes.
Battle "lost more in Iraq than any number of houses can give back," Padgett said. "The good news is, a wonderful home is ready for another vet in great need. . . . Sgt. Battle is deserving, but he's not the most deserving. I'm sure we'll find that person soon."