Quadruple amputee veteran able to live on his own in ‘smart home’ thanks to foundations

NEW YORK — U.S. Army Sgt. Brendan Marrocco, living comfortably in his new “smart home” as he awaits a call for an arm transplant that a few years ago would have been unthinkable, has made quite a habit of being a trailblazer over the past few years.

On June 11, 2011, Marrocco, 26, of Staten Island, became the first recipient of a home built with money raised by the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation and Building Homes for Heroes, with help from actor Gary Sinise.

Gary Sinise

Army Sgt. Brendan Marrocco’s home was built specifically for his needs as a quadruple amputee. Marrocco is a veteran of the Iraq War. Photo by Peter Hvizdak / New Haven Register

But a couple of years before that, on an early-morning roadside about 125 miles north of Baghdad, he was first for an even more historic distinction he never would have chosen: the first U.S. soldier in Iraq or Afghanistan to survive injuries as a quadruple amputee.

On Easter Sunday 2009, the armored vehicle that he, good friend Michael Anaya and two other soldiers were riding in tripped a roadside explosive device. It blew up the vehicle and killed Anaya instantly.

It blew Marrocco’s arms and legs off, severed his left carotid artery and broke his nose, left eye socket and facial bones. It blew shrapnel into his face, burned his neck and face and damaged his eyesight.

Gary Sinise and veteran

The counters in Marrocco’s home rise and fall to fit his and his guest’s needs. Photo by Peter Hvizdak / New Haven Register

Doctors didn’t even know about his artery initially because he had lost so much blood that it no longer spurted out, his trauma surgeon, Maj. Jayson Aydelotte, told the New York Times in 2010.

“Any one of his injuries was life-threatening,” Aydelotte told the Times. “It’s incredible.”

Somehow, though, Marrocco survived.

When officials from Tunnel to Towers first approached him and his family about building him an electronically controlled smart home, “I don’t think anyone took it too seriously,” Marrocco said in a recent interview.

At that point, about a year into his recovery at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, “I still had a lot to go. We didn’t have the mind set of what comes next at that point,” said Marrocco, a member of the Army’s 25th Infantry Division.

Gary Sinise and veteran

Sgt. Brendan Marrocco’s house in Staten Island, N.Y., was built specifically for his needs. Photo by Peter Hvizdak / New Haven Register

But “then our focus just changed, as I started to get better … as my mind cleared up and I realized that there was going to be more than just recovery,” he said. As he spoke, he sat in the kitchen of a two-story, three-bedroom house on a leafy street near Wolfe’s Pond Park.

At that point, Marrocco, who has prosthetic arms and legs, began working with an architect on the design for his home.

“Straight from the beginning, it was very clear that everybody cared and wanted to help,” he said.

The house was built over 10 months after a huge fund-raising effort that raised more than $850,000. It included a concert by actor Gary Sinise and his Lt. Dan Band on Aug. 10, 2010. The total included $200,000 raised by Firefighters for Wounded Veterans.

Sinise at that point had yet to form his own foundation.

Gary Sinise and veteran

Marrocco operates the features in his house using an iPad that he can operate with his amputated arm. Photo by Peter Hvizdak / New Haven Register

“I think it’s incredible” what Sinise and the Tunnel to Towers Foundation do, Marrocco said. Sinise “is one of those people who has a very big spot in his heart” for veterans.

“I think it really shows what it means to him and how he cares,” said Marrocco, who met Sinise at Walter Reed. He also was visited there by actor Jon Voight, country musician Zac Brown, a number of NASCAR drivers and a number of other sports figures, including members of the New York Yankees, New York Mets and Washington Nationals.

While he appreciated all the visits, “it seems like (Sinise) goes” beyond what the others do, he said.

The end result of all the fund-raising and Marrocco’s meetings with the architect is beautiful — and comfortable — and is built with Marrocco’s needs in mind.

“I like being here,” he said. “It’s just a good place to be.”

Tunnel to Towers

John Hodge, director of operations of the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation which leads the funding of new homes for veterans with multiple amputations. Photo by Peter Hvizdak / New Haven Register

For Marrocco, moving into the house “definitely made a big change, because I’m on my own and I have some semblance of a normal life again,” he said.

The house, which Marrocco shares with his older brother, Michael, 28, is equipped with automatic sensor lights, an elevator, a handicapped-accessible ramp and remote-controlled kitchen cabinets and appliances that raise and lower.

Dishes and glassware lower directly from a cabinet. His stove and kitchen counter can change height depending on who’s using them. It’s all controllable with one digit on an iPad networked with a central computer.

The bathroom off his bedroom has an open shower that is easy to get in and out of with a wheelchair, along with a beautiful — and rather large — Jacuzzi-equipped tub that Marrocco admitted he had not yet used.

Gary Sinise and veteran

Sgt. Brendan Marrocco’s custom-built house features an elevator. Photo by Peter Hvizdak / New Haven Register

The house also has heated ramps on the front and back porches that automatically melt snow and ice, said Tunnel to Towers Foundation Operations Manager John Hodge.

As is the case with all the homes the Sinise and Tunnel to Towers foundations are building, the house is customized according to the interests and needs of the recipients.

In Marrocco’s case that means it also has a well-outfitted “man cave” with a 70-inch-screen TV and New York Jets and New York Yankees memorabilia on the walls; NASCAR memorabilia and photos and a magazine article about Marrocco meeting Tiger Woods mounted on the upstairs hallway walls, and a “really nice garage” to house his 2006 Dodge Charger and his ATV.

Gary Sinise and veteran

Sgt. Brendan Marrocco’s bathroom in his Staten Island, N.Y., home. Photo by Peter Hvizdak / New Haven Register

Marrocco was a mechanic before going into the military. He hopes to restore the ATV — and drive the Charger again — sometime in the future.

Contact Mark Zaretsky at mzaretsky@nhregister.com. Follow him on Twitter @markzar.

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