As Shaun and Jesyka O’Brien drove to southern Delaware, they wracked their brains about what they’d be asked when they got there.
The couple was traveling to Lewes for what they thought was an interview with Operation Finally Home, a national nonprofit organization that provides custom-built, mortgage-free homes to military heroes and widows of the fallen.
Little did they know the decision had already been made. They were receiving a new home.
“This is everything you could ever imagine,” said Shaun, after learning the news. “This is a brand-new start for us.”
The couple has a 4-year-old son, Chase, and a 2-year-old service dog, Lee.
Shaun O’Brien reached the rank of sergeant in the U.S. Army, serving as a combat medic. After going to basic training at Fort Benning in Georgia in 2009, he received medical training at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio. Upon completion, he was stationed at Fort Knox in Kentucky. He was deployed to Afghanistan in January 2011, and his life changed forever just a few months later, in September. While doing a final sweep, he and his team were hit by a heat rocket.
“Being a medic, it was calls from others that ultimately woke him up,” said Russell L. Carroll, executive director of Operation Finally Home. “Then he realized he was one of the ones who needed help.”
Shaun suffered a back injury and head trauma and now has post-traumatic stress disorder.
Living in the Lewes area will be very therapeutic, he said.
“Water has been my escape, my release,” he said. “To find that release and escape is hard sometimes. Being near the water has been key to that. Being a part of a community like this, where everything is dedicated to that kind of life, that is a dream come true for us.”
The couple lives in Union County, N.J., but they have vacationed in Rehoboth Beach and Dewey Beach the last two summers.
“Even before all this, we always thought, ‘What an amazing area,’” Jesyka said.
During the application process, officials from Operation Finally Home asked the family if they would be comfortable living in Maryland. Jesyka said yes, but added they would also consider Delaware. As it happened, the organization had property and partners ready to move forward in Delaware.
“We didn’t even know where in Delaware, but we were like Delaware is small enough, so it can’t be too far from a beach,” Jesyka said. “Then they told us it was in Lewes. We were shell shocked.”
Once they arrived in Delaware still unaware they were recipients, they were taken out to dinner at Striper Bites and then escorted to a free concert in Lewes Canalfront Park. After a few songs, the band took a break; Carroll took the mic and asked them to come to the front.
With several hundred in attendance, they learned the big news. Sunglasses hid their eyes, but the emotion poured through, as the couple embraced each other and their son.
Each wiped away tears of joy as Carroll continued, telling the crowd Shaun’s story and about the organization and what they do for veterans and their families.
“This is just a great place for him to continue to heal, physically and emotionally,” Carroll said. “You could see the weight lifted off their shoulders when they got the news.”
Operational Finally Home has delivered more than 130 homes since 2005, with 100 of them in the last four years. There are about 100 other projects in the planning stages, Carroll said.
This will be the organization’s first project in Delaware. Lewes Building Company will build a home for the O’Brien family in Red Fox Run north of Lewes. A groundbreaking ceremony was held July 21, and the home should be move-in ready this fall or next spring, Carroll said.
“It's a dream of ours to live in a community where we're accepted for who we are,” Jesyka said.“This has changed our life completely.”
To learn more about Operation Finally Home, go to operationfinallyhome.org.