As Mario Nelson searched for survivors among the debris at Ground Zero, he made a decision that would forever alter his family’s future — he was going to Iraq to fight this enemy.
His wife, Mecca, too, was selfless when the National Guardsman detailed the plan that would ultimately cost him his life.
“He said, ‘they’re going to need me, so I’m going to active duty to fight,’’’ his widow recalled. “I had to support him and stand by him. When you are the wife of a soldier, you have to be a strong source for them.’’
She said she was struck by the phrasing used by her husband, a native of Haiti who was brought to the United States as a child. “He said he had to help his country – meaning America,’’ she recalled.
Things have been a struggle for Nelson, a martial arts and Yoga instructor, and her daughter, Mia, ever since the grenade detonated near her husband’s vehicle as the 26-year-old U.S. Army sergeant was leading a convoy of Iraqi soldiers and U.S. Marines through a perilous stretch of road.
The difficult times she and her daughter have had, which include bouncing from one bad Brooklyn apartment to another, lead them to a better home Wednesday, when they received a mortgage-free Graniteville townhome from the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation’s Gold Star Family Home Program.
“Sgt. Mario Nelson defined what it means to be an American hero,’’ said Frank Siller, chairman and founder of the foundation that bears his late brother’s name. “He wasn’t born here, but when his country needed him, he answered the call. He was so motivated by the attacks on his country, on his city, that he made the decision to enlist and leave Mecca and Mia behind to protect the country he loved so much.”
The home, which was dedicated in a private ceremony Wednesday, is something she’s been praying for, Nelson said.
In fact, she’d been doing just that in church in March, the day before she got the good news from the foundation’s Gold Star Family Home Program. Her bishop in the Brooklyn church asked the congregation if anyone planned to get a house in the coming year.
And she just had a feeling.
“I put my hand up, then down, then up again,’’ she said. “I didn’t know how it was going to happen, but I would trust in God.’’
GOLD STAR FAMILY HOME PROGRAM
Siller, along with his siblings, founded the nonprofit organization in honor of their late brother, Stephen, an off-duty New York City firefighter who was killed while responding to the World Trade Center on September 11 after running through the Battery Tunnel with 60 pounds of gear on his back.
The Gold Star Family Home Program has delivered — or is in the process of delivering — 30 mortgage-free homes to families of military and first responders who have given their lives in the call of duty since its inception in September 2018. Some of the homes are purchased for families, as is the case with the Nelsons; while some are built for families. The foundation also renovates the families’ existing homes and pays off the mortgages.
“We believe that we have a contract with our men and women in uniform,’’ Siller said. “When you go out to serve your country, you kiss your wife and kids goodbye and you don’t come home, we will give you a mortgage-free home. We hope these homes bring joy to families that have paid such a price for our freedom. It’s life-changing for them, a place to call home that shows them we haven’t forgotten about them.”
The three-bedroom home, nicely renovated by the foundation with new floors, fresh paint and repairs, isn’t immense — but it’s the perfect size for them, Nelson said.
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