NORTH OGDEN — It’s safe to say that the lives of Jennie Taylor, Travis Vendela and Brian Johnston have all been irrevocably changed by war.
Taylor’s husband, Brent Taylor, a Utah Army National Guard major and former North Ogden mayor, was killed on Nov. 3, 2018 while serving a yearlong deployment in Afghanistan.
Vendela, a sergeant in the Army, lost both legs when his vehicle was hit by an explosively formed projectile in Balad, Iraq, in 2007.
Johnston, a Marine sergeant, lost his right arm and leg when his vehicle was hit by an improvised explosive device in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2004.
The group united Thursday in North Ogden, linked by an organization that has now come to the aid of all three of them.
The New York-based Tunnel to Towers Foundation has already paid off the outstanding debt on Taylor’s mortgage and will eventually build customized, high-tech smart homes for the two severely injured Purple Heart recipients. With Taylor acting as a spokeswoman of sorts, the foundation held a press conference at North Ogden’s city hall to announce the construction of the two homes.
Frank Siller, Tunnel to Towers chairman and chief executive officer, said the nonprofit is named after and honors his late brother, Stephen Siller, a firefighter who was killed in New York during the 9/11 attacks. After hearing of the attacks on the World Trade Center, Stephen Siller sped through the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel on foot to help at Ground Zero. He died at the Trade Center.
Through several different programs, Tunnel to Towers aids U.S. service members and first responders killed or severely injured in the line of duty.
As part of the organization’s Smart Home Program, Vendela and Johnston will each receive customized high-tech homes, mortgage free.
Siller said all of the homes’ major functions can be run from an iPad and feature things like motorized kitchen cabinets, mechanized lifts that can move appliances to wheelchair height, customized bathrooms, oversized doorways and an HVAC system that allows for specialized body temperature challenges.
Vendela, who will have his home built in Huntsville, said his shoulder and elbow are deteriorating from constantly having to reach for things from his wheelchair. He said he likes to cook, but its hard to navigate the kitchen of his current home. He also has a hard time keeping tabs on his three small children when they venture into the basement.
“I feel like I fought for freedom,” he said. “But I feel the most enclosed and the least free in my own house.”
Johnston will have a home built in Hooper and said it would change his life.
“Things that most people take for granted can be really hard for someone like me,” he said. “Even walking on the carpet. For me, it sucks to be in a wheelchair and try to go over the carpet.”
Taylor said the organization has been a tremendous help to her, one of many supporters that have emerged following her husband’s death.
Brent Taylor took a hiatus as mayor of North Ogden to serve his fourth overseas deployment with the National Guard in January 2018. With less than three months remaining on the stint, a member of the Afghan special forces unit he was helping train killed him.
In addition to his wife, parents, brothers and many other family members, Taylor left behind seven children.
Within 48 hours of her husband’s death, Taylor said Tunnel to Towers had reached out to her family and committed to pay off her mortgage.
“My sister called me and asked what the pay-off amount was for our mortgage,” Taylor said. “I didn’t have the exact amount, but I knew roughly what it was. I couldn’t imagine why she wanted to know. When I found out what was going on — it was just a huge financial weight off of our family.”
At the press conference, Taylor urged Utah residents to support the charity, which can be done by visiting tunnel2towers.org.