A grenade blinded Blake DeLoach in Afghanistan. This year, he and his wife will receive a custom-built home at The Acreage, a gift from a non-profit organization.
BOYNTON BEACH – U.S. Army Sgt. Joseph DeLoach was sitting in a truck with his team in the Afghan town of Kunar on October 10, 2010, when a grenade hit the vehicle and exploded.
That day, at age 24, he lost his sight.
Over the next 12 years, DeLoach moved from hospital to hospital, rental apartment to rental apartment, while battling pain, trauma, depression, estrangement from his three sons and addiction. to the drugs that made his life bearable.
During this time, too, he slowly regained control of his life.
He married his rehabilitation therapist. He went back to school and got certified as a massage therapist and personal trainer. He got in shape and can now bench press over 300 pounds. For the first time in his life he learned to play a musical instrument – he learned to play the guitar by ear.
This summer he will finally have a home – the first home he will own and live in.
“This will be the first home for me that I don’t have to worry about leaving,” DeLoach said.
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With an adaptable floor plan, the house was designed to make everyday life easier for people with disabilities, including doors and appliances that respond to voice commands.
Honestly, DeLoach says, he’s nervous.
“I’m so used to making changes to make my environment work that when it comes to this place, and my environment works for me, I don’t even know what to expect,” said- he declared.
It shouldn’t be that way, said Tom Landwermeyer, president of Homes For Our Troops, a nonprofit dedicated to building homes for injured veterans, who bought the land and built the house at The Acreage for owned by the veteran.
“We really see our mission as the moral obligation of the citizens of the United States to repay a debt that can never be fully repaid,” Landwermeyer said.
The nonprofit has built 327 homes nationwide, including 40 in Florida. Palm Beach County has two homes completed so far. Landwermeyer says there will be five next year.
Deloach learned of the opportunity to get his own when he attended a 2016 concert at the Perfect Vodka Amphitheater (now iThink Financial Amphitheater) with his wife, Lauren O’Farrell.
During the show, Darius Rucker – formerly of Hootie and the Blowfish – who had partnered with Homes for Our Troops, announced the donation of a home to a veteran.
“Why don’t you apply for one of them?” O’Farrell shouted above the crowd.
She applied for him and a year later, in 2017, they got the call.
“I thought once I got injured I was going to live off my disability and rent for the rest of my life and get by with anything,” DeLoach said. “But it turned out to be much more than that.”
“It was as if a firecracker had exploded in my body”
DeLoach, whose friends and family name is Blake, was born in South Carolina. At 18, he enlisted in the army.
Its first deployment, in Iraq, dates back to 2006.
“At the time, everything was bombed. It was bombed everywhere,” said DeLoach, who was 21 at the time. “You were driving down the road one day and the next day the whole road disappeared due to a bomb.”
On a warm evening, DeLoach drove through a village with his squad; he was the tail, the last soldier in the line. He remembers seeing the village alive, with people walking through the streets and standing in front of buildings, but only until the soldiers passed.
“We got to a bridge, I looked back and everyone was gone. It wasn’t good,” DeLoach said. and everything exploded.”
A bomb exploded 3 meters away, knocking him backwards into a hole. The blast left him with injured ankles and a severed muscle in his right shoulder.
Still, he says, he was lucky. The hole he fell in was for a second bomb which failed to explode.
DeLoach re-enlisted as soon as he recovered. “I thought it was the smart thing to do,” he said. “I didn’t want another lower ranked guy like me to go out there and not know what to expect.”
By then he had three sons from his first marriage.
In 2010, he was sent to Afghanistan, where he made a lasting friend in a soldier named Ryan Kent. Having friends in the military is tough, DeLoach says.
“You never know if you’ll be walking down the road one minute and the next the buddy you were talking to might never be there again,” he said.
On October 18, 2010, three days after his 24th birthday, DeLoach replaced another soldier.
“I wasn’t even supposed to be on this mission,” he said.
“We were coming around a corner and I just had cold sweats and the feeling of when I was blown up the first time,” DeLoach said. “I grabbed my seat belt, tightened it and all of a sudden it was like a firecracker had gone off in my body.”
An improvised explosive device shattered the window of the truck, passed between the two soldiers seated in the front seats and landed on DeLoach’s neck and face.
“I sat there with all this pain and went to say something and my teeth started falling out of my mouth,” DeLoach said. “I lost a bunch of jawbones and a lot of teeth, and I have a scar where she blew into my neck from which I was squirting blood everywhere.”
None of the other soldiers suffered serious injuries, which he is grateful for.
“The hardest part was waiting and having to lose your sight, that was a hurdle in itself because nothing could be simpler,” DeLoach said. “Everything is complicated”
Still, he insists, “If I could, I would have re-enlisted.”
A return home, a new romance, a life rebuilt
DeLoach waited four years for his honorary discharge, receiving care for the first three at Walter Reed Military Medical Center.
In 2013, he arrived in Augusta, Georgia, where he stayed at Fort Gordon Barracks while continuing treatment at the local VA clinic.
It was there that he met O’Farrell, who specializes in training blind veterans in orientation and mobility.
DeLoach didn’t want to get out of bed. O’Farrell didn’t move.
“We have to get up at some point, man,” she said.
She never stopped pushing him. “I felt she wasn’t looking at me sympathetically and that was a real attraction,” DeLoach said.
On their first date, DeLoach didn’t tell her they were going on a date.
He heard Lauren say she had always wanted to go see the view from the top of the Lamar Building, a historic 17-story skyscraper with floor-to-ceiling windows. During one of their last days of therapy as they practiced moving around downtown, DeLoach drove her into the building.
He had planned everything. A few days before, he had spoken to the caretaker of the building who had arranged a formally laid table for them on the roof, where they had dined at McDonald’s.
Lauren says, between laughs, that she didn’t expect to marry a blind man, but with DeLoach, nothing mattered. “I felt like I had known him forever,” she said.
But Augusta was only a stage for both of them. DeLoach longed to live in Florida, so when Lauren was offered a job at the VA Medical Center in Riviera Beach in 2014, the couple moved in together.
“It was just a lifestyle mess to be honest”
By then, however, he had become addicted to painkillers. Memories of battle haunt him. And the depression darkened even his best days.
“It was just a lifestyle mess to be honest,” DeLoach said. “I was on opiates, I was on fentanyl, I was on everything at the same time and when we got here it all went wrong.”
“You have your injuries, so you can play a little sympathy card and get pills whenever you want, and I struggled with that for a long time,” DeLoach said.
Until he nearly died in 2016. It was October, his birthday was just days away and his injury date was approaching. He took a month’s worth of opiates in four days.
“I was like, ‘I don’t want to feel anything,'” DeLoach said. “I was about to overdose without going.”
Alone in his apartment, he thought of Lauren and his three teenage sons.
“I walked into the room and started thinking about all the times I promised everyone, ‘I’m going to do well, I’m going to clean up and it’s always been an empty promise'” , DeLoach said. “I wanted it to be different this time around.”
As soon as he could stand, he rushed to the gym, grabbed some weights and started lifting. Every day he would come back for two to three hours, adding a little more weight to the racks.
“That’s what I’ll do when I want to use it,” DeLoach said. “And I stuck to it, I haven’t taken any opiates since.”
Signs of Hope: Getting Stronger, Playing Guitar, Finding a Home
After getting clean, DeLoach began training at the Boynton Barbell Center. When he started in 2017, he could squat 280 pounds. Last January, he set his new personal best at 530 pounds.
He earned a personal trainer certificate and since the pandemic began, he has built a gym in his Boynton Beach garage. This year he graduated as a Registered Massage Therapist.
DeLoach also learned to play the guitar, which he thought was impossible when he could see it. “It just didn’t make sense,” DeLoach said. “After I lost my sight, I was like, ‘Oh, this is super easy,’ and I was able to get it back.”
Lauren painted the dots along the neck of her guitar for her thumb to feel when she presses down on the strings to make chords.
October, however, is still difficult every year. Last May, fellow soldier Ryan Kent passed away. Now, on his birthday, he reminisces about Kent’s life, three days later he faces his injury date, and the next morning he and Lauren celebrate their wedding anniversary.
“Since losing my sight, good things have happened: I met my wife, I’m back in my children’s lives and I’m off medication,” he said. “I wouldn’t see myself in any of these scenarios before, so it has a funny way of making you thankful for it at the end.”
His relationship with his teenage sons is better than ever, he says.
“I taught my son to play guitar over the phone and now he plays better than me,” DeLoach said with a smile. “The house will give me space for my children to come and visit.”
He also looks forward to welcoming his friends from the VA and the community who are also injured and who are in wheelchairs to his new home.
“It’s not going to put them in a situation where they would be uncomfortable coming in because they can’t walk through the front door,” DeLoach said. “You can invite anyone because the house is for all wounds.”