Vickroy: Soldier’s home is where community’s heart is
When word got out that a soldier finally was coming home, many south suburban residents cheered.
But then they learned the wounded warrior’s house had been destroyed by squatters while he was away. So they shook their heads and began to roll up their sleeves.
On Aug. 24, when Army Staff Sgt. Brett Mango returns to Midlothian, he will be greeted with a parade, a block party/pig roast and the keys to what is essentially a totally rehabbed home.
Mango was on patrol near Garesh in the Helmand Province of Afghanistan in July 2012 when he was ambushed.
“I dove into a ditch for cover,” the Bremen High School graduate said. The fighting continued for four days.
“My adrenaline was so high I didn’t even realize until it was over that I had been badly injured,” he said.
He had jumped into a drainage ditch wearing his 125-pound pack. The jolt shattered one disc in his back and ruptured several others. He had to be medivacced out.
Mango, 38, had surgery and is undergoing physical therapy in Georgia. Doctors aren’t sure if the loss of feeling in the bottom of his left foot and calf will be permanent.
He is in the process of retiring from the military and is looking forward to returning to his hometown with his wife, Johanna, and their children, Hannah, Brock and Jack.
Mango’s uncle, Paul Klimczak, a lifelong resident of Midlothian, also served his country, in the Air Force.
“I am only 10 years older than Brett. He has always had a special place in my heart,” Klimczak said.
When Klimczak heard that Mango had decided to return to the split-level home he’d been unable to sell before he was to leave on a tour of duty, the very home he’d relinquished to a realty company, figuring it would be foreclosed on while he was gone, Klimczak was both happy and dismayed.
“We were all so glad he was coming back here,” he said. “But then we realized what he was coming back to.”
Turns out banks can’t foreclose on the homes of active military who are serving in a war zone. But in the years since Mango left, the structure at 145th Street and Keeler Avenue had fallen into disarray. Squatters and wild animals had moved in.
The windows were smashed, the heating and air conditioning units had been stripped for copper, and the siding, soffits and fascia were falling apart, Klimczak said.
“Inside, squatters had urinated and defecated all over the place. It was really trashed,” he said.
Klimczak, who is also commander of Midlothian American Legion Post 691, made a phone call to Bruce Nelson.
Nelson, business representative for Carpenters Local 434 and a trustee on the Carpenters Apprentice School board in Elk Grove Village, made a few calls of his own.
Before long, Klimczak, a maintenance work for Oak Forest-based Arbor Park School District 145, had an army of volunteers — carpenters, electricians, roofers and painters, as well as other local veterans and residents — at his disposal.
He also received an outpouring of donations — some cash, some materials — from residents and from local retailers, including Home Depot, Corrigan Heating and Air Conditioning Co. in Chicago’s Marquette Park neighborhood, and Folgers Flag of Blue Island. The group Rebuilding Together, a nonprofit based in Chicago that specializes in rehab projects, also offered its services.
The bank refinanced the mortgage. The village of Midlothian waived the grass-cutting fees that had accumulated over the years. And, Klimczak said, VFW Post 2580 paid the $350 outstanding water bill.
In all, Klimczak said, more than $40,000 worth of repairs have been donated to the project. Nothing is more touching, he said, than the legions of people who have been showing up to donate time and talent since work began in April.
On a recent Friday afternoon, Al Sucharzewski and his 15-year-old son, Josh, a student at Oak Forest High School, were repairing an entryway. Sucharzewski is a member of Carpenters Local 141.
They were joined by Edward Gurick, a member of Local 434 and a regular at the site. Even though Gurick is between jobs, he said he believes strongly that “you’re supposed to do good things for people whenever you can.”
Union painters heard about the mission and stopped by to help hang drywall, tape and paint. One Saturday, after working a full shift, seven roofers reroofed the house and then stripped and reshingled the garage, Nelson said.
“They worked well into the night,” Nelson said.
“It’s just amazing,” said Nelson, who lives on Chicago’s South Side. “This has taken on a life of its own. I can’t even thank these people because when I try to, they say, ‘No, thank you for letting me help.’ ”
Like Gurick, many of the volunteers are out of work, Nelson said.
“Some of these guys haven’t worked in over a year and yet they still want to give their talent,” he said.
True tradespeople, Nelson said, find joy in building. The paycheck is a bonus.
John McNichols, a Midlothian resident and an unemployed tiler, wandered over one day to see if he could get work. Klimczak told him it was charity. Then he told him Mango’s story. McNichols has been helping on the job for months now.
Mayor Sharon Ryback said the rehab job is “a wonderful gesture by the unions, the VFW and the residents of Midlothian.”
One of Ryback’s daughters went to school with Mango.
“This is a small, close community,” she said. “We’d like to do more of these kinds of things, maybe start some programs that will invite veterans to come and live in Midlothian.”
Mango moved into the house when he was in sixth grade. After he graduated from high school, he joined the Army, where he met his wife. After he was discharged, he landed a job with the New Orleans Police Department. He served on the SWAT team during Hurricane Katrina, which, he said, “was horrendous.”
Six months after the devastating storm, he was hired by the Northlake Police Department and he moved his family back to Midlothian and bought his parents’ house.
After deciding to go back into the military, he put the house up for sale. But by then the market had started to nose-dive. So when it came time to go, he left the place in the hands of the realty company.
While he was overseas, first in Iraq and then in Afghanistan, the house essentially was destroyed.
“I’ve seen the pictures; they made me pretty upset,” he said. “But I’ve also seen the pictures of the work that people have been doing there. It’s awesome.”
Now, he said, he can’t wait to get back here, to work in his family’s restaurant, Mango Pizzeria in Alsip, and to meet all of those people who have worked so hard to give him such a heartfelt homecoming.
“That’s what I’m most looking forward to, meeting everyone,” he said. “I also hope to put more of an effort into helping Midlothian, to bring it back to the way it was (before the economy tanked).”
Like so many of the people who volunteered on the project, Mango said he, too, wants to give back to other veterans.
Gurick said the volunteer efforts are but “small things to a giant.”
“These guys are putting their lives on the line for us,” Klimczak said. “The least we can do is give them a roof over their heads when they come home.”