LAKEWOOD RANCH -- Wounded warrior Ken Katter, his wife, Patti, and their children will long remember 2014 as one of their best Christmases ever.
They are in a new home gifted to them, mortgage-free, by the nonprofit Building Homes for Heroes.
"I can't even put it into words. I still can't really believe it. It's amazing," Patti Katter said Wednesday of the gift.
"It feels so nice, and it happened so fast," she said.
Chase Bank donates foreclosed homes to Building Homes for Heroes, and fixes them so that they are habitable. Building Homes then renovates the home to meet the needs of the disabled veteran, said the nonprofit's Kim Valdyke.
"It's huge, not having the financial burden of a mortgage. It's been totally life-changing," Patti Katter said. "The outpouring of support from our neighbors is amazing. We have made some really good friends down here."
Iraq War vet Ken Katter is recuperating from recent major back surgery, stemming from his wartime injuries in 2007, and was not up for an interview this week.
But Patti Katter said she views her husband's surgery as part of the good news this Christmas.
"If it were not for us living here, we would not have found the surgeon who did my husband's back surgery. We waited so long since he was injured in 2007. We are hoping we can look forward to a little better future for him," she said.
Ken Katter served in the Marines from 1990 to 1994 before leaving the service to complete his college degree in criminal justice. He served as a police officer in Saginaw County, Mich., for 10 years, and joined the U.S. Army in 2005.
He was in a vehicle in Iraq May 28, 2007, when a bomb planted by an insurgent detonated in the village of Zagniyah.
As the disabled truck, with Katter and others inside was being towed away, another improvised explosive detonated.
He sustained a traumatic head injury, ruptured ear drums, and neck and back injuries. He was medically retired from the Army in 2010 with a 100 percent disability.
Last Christmas, the Katters were living in Michigan, and wanted to move to a warmer climate.
They applied to Building Homes for Heroes and were accepted.
"We ask our veterans where they would like to live," Valdyke said. "If we have a house in that area, we show them and ask if they would like to live there. They pick."
Valdyke hosted the turnover of the Lakewood Ranch house on Oct. 29 to the Katters and has gotten to know them well. "I adore Ken and Patti. He is the nicest man, and Patti would do anything for you," Valdyke said.
Although the Lakewood Ranch gift was the first one in Manatee County, Building Homes for Heroes also has donated homes to vets in Riverview, Apollo Beach and elsewhere in Florida.
The Florida Legislature this year appropriated $2 million for Building Homes for Heroes, and the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity is processing payments for the construction or renovation of Florida homes that will be gifted to veterans, said Jessica K. Sims, a spokeswoman for the department.
This week, Florida Gov. Rick Scott highlighted Building Homes for Heroes.
"Florida is becoming the most military-friendly state in the nation and our partnership with Building Homes for Heroes is a fantastic opportunity to thank our veterans," Scott said.
A mortgage-free home, especially at this time of year, alleviates a lot of stress for a family, Valdyke said. "They can actually have a Christmas. It puts them all at ease."
While her family will continue to have its challenges, Patti Katter talked about her concern for other struggling veterans.
An average of 22 veterans a day commit suicide, and the problem typically is worse during holidays.
"They should know that they are not alone. There is hope and there are a lot of people who care. Don't give up; reach out because there are people who care," she said.
Among those organizations that can help is Hope For The Warriors, for which Patti works.
Building Homes for Heroes invests 94.9 percent of every dollar it raises back into homes for veterans, and its board of directors and chief executive officer are all volunteers, Kim Valdyke said. "They don't take a penny."
Veterans interested in the program may apply online at buildinghomesforheroes.org.
James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee reporter, can be contacted at 941-745-7053 or on Twitter @jajones1.