Wounded soldier, young family receive house

TAMPA PALMS, Fla. — When Nicholas Salerno enlisted in the Army three years ago, he saw military duty as a pathway to a career and a way to earn money to buy a house.

He is accomplishing both goals. On Oct. 31, Salerno became a new homeowner courtesy of a program for wounded veterans. He also is working toward a degree in physical therapy.

But the course the 24-year-old took to reach his goals isn’t the one he envisioned.

After a two-month application process, Salerno and his family took possession of a 2,059-square-foot, two-story home in Tampa Palms’ Mayfair community last week. He proudly waved the keys above his head in front of a gathering of reporters, photographers and Bank of America volunteers.

The four-bedroom, three-bathroom house was donated to Salerno; his fiancee, Larissa, 23; and her son, Tristan, 4, by the Military Warriors Support Foundation and Bank of America through a nationwide program for wounded warriors and first responders. Larissa declined to give her last name, saying she preferred to be called Salerno.

“I want to thank everybody,” Nicholas Salerno said, standing outside the house at 5217 Abbey Park Ave. “This is amazing.

“If this didn’t come through, I would still be living with my mom, and she (Larissa) would be living with her parents. We wouldn’t be together.”

Salerno and Larissa recently were engaged. They met earlier this year in Pinellas County, where they both grew up. He lived in Palm Harbor; she is from Tarpon Springs.

Salerno retired from the military this year after spending more than a year recovering from an injury he suffered while on duty in November 2010. His unit, the 10th Mountain Division from Fort Drum Army Base in upstate New York, was stationed in northern Afghanistan at the time.

The soldier sustained a traumatic brain injury and lost his right foot and a portion of his right leg below the knee when he stepped on an improvised explosive device while on patrol.

Much of his rehabilitation occurred at the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital’s poly-trauma center in Tampa. He uses a prosthetic leg to walk.

Salerno discovered an appreciation for physical therapy during his treatment. He is enrolled at St. Petersburg College, with plans to transfer to Hillsborough Community College to complete his bachelor’s degree in physical therapy. Salerno then plans to pursue a doctorate degree in physical therapy at the University of South Florida. Salerno beams when he talks about his time in the Army. He never expected a traumatic injury would be the reason for such changes in his life.

Larissa, who grew up in a military family, is eager for the couple to begin their life together.

At the grand opening celebration, Salerno and Larissa mostly trailed Tristan as he raced throughout the house, looking for his room. Salerno felt as if he just woke up on Christmas morning, he said.

Karyn Phillips, a family and financial counselor with the Military Warriors Support Foundation, will work with the Salerno family during the next three years to provide guidance on improving their credit and saving money, she said. The couple will stay in the house free of charge, but the foundation will hold the deed.

“If they comply with the program and are fiscally ready to take over ownership in three years, they will get the house 100 percent mortgage-free,” Phillips said.

Bank of America recently made a commitment to donate 1,000 houses nationwide through organizations such as the Military Warriors Support Foundation as a show of support to deserving wounded troops and first responders, said Bill Goede, president of Bank of America’s operations in the Tampa area.

“This is the first one we have done in the Tampa Bay area specifically for a wounded veteran,” Goede said.

The bank refurbished the house, which was built in 2000, Goede said. The bank took possession when the house was foreclosed in 2008. The renovations included new appliances, carpet, an exterior fence and landscaping.