Land of the free, home of the brave

The day before Independence Day, Marine Cpl. Michael Leslie received a new mortgage-free home in
Auburndale from the Bank of America and the Military Warriors Support Foundation. 

After three years of sacrifice for his country, troop supporters gave Marine Cpl. Michael Leslie something back — a new home to celebrate Independence Day with his fiancee and three dogs.

Representatives from Bank of America and the Military Warriors Support Foundation handed Leslie the keys to his new Auburndale residence Thursday, as dozens of veterans applauded from the flag-lined street.  

Leslie was eligible for the mortgage-free house because of his Purple Heart and Combat Action Ribbon through the Military Warriors Support Foundation. Though Leslie was able to walk up the steps to his new home, he faces one of the most common injuries among veterans from the conflict in Iraq: Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI).

On Dec. 17, 2006, Leslie’s brain was jolted by a 250-pound improvised explosion device (IED) in some of the bloodiest days of the Iraq War. 

“It’s like getting hit by a bank door at 40 miles an hour,” he said. 

Until that point, Leslie had served in the Marines since going to boot camp on his 18th birthday in 2005. Three months later, he was deployed to Iraq where his unit endured 31 IED blasts. 

“A lot of them hit, a lot of them missed,” he said. 

Though explosions didn’t have an immediate effect, the repeated concussions compounded over time.

“You know how football players get hit in the head with the helmet?” Leslie said. “It’s like that times five when you get hit by a roadside bomb. You’re going to cough blood, your ears will burst.”

For seven months, Leslie fought in places like Fallujah before President George W. Bush ordered the surge for backup. Leslie said he slept maybe four hours a day and showered once a month given the chance.

“The first couple of times, you’re freaking out thinking you’re going to die,” he said. “But after the first couple of months, nothing phases you.”

After the blast that sent him to the hospital, Leslie continued to serve until 2008.

“Nothing else does it for me. It’s the adrenaline,” he said. “That’s why guys in the military buy motorcycles when they get home.”

When Leslie arrived back in Tampa, he said he struggled with anxiety and an uncertainty of his role as a private citizen.

“I had to detach myself a little bit from society after a military life,” he said. 

Leslie also struggled with the symptoms of his brain injury, such as a tingling sensation on the left side of his face that caused him to fear a stroke. 

“It’s still painful,” he said. “I’ll get migraines every day for the rest of my life.”

Only since the Vietnam War have researchers tried to grasp the consequence of hidden wounds, such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and TBI.

“They’re the main killers,” Leslie said. 

According to the Brain Injury Association of New York State, about one in five veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan suffer from a brain injury, making it the most common injury from the two conflicts.

“There’s so many guys who have TBI but don’t even realize it,” Leslie said. “There’s memory loss, speech problems, anger.”

Ready to start working again, Leslie trained to be a police officer. However, his supervisors noticed his anxiety issue and advised him to find something else. 

It was Leslie’s fiancee, Danielle Botvidson, who told him to give the free house a shot. 

Over the past three years, Bank of America has given more than 240 houses in Florida to non-profits, such the Military Warriors Support Foundation, for donation to troops like Leslie.

Leslie said he and his fiancee were in disbelief. 

The couple even drove past the house on arrival.

“He asked, ‘where do I do park?’” Botvidson said. “I said, ‘right in the driveway.”’

Before receiving the three-bedroom house in Auburndale, Leslie lived with Botvidson and three dogs in a small Tampa apartment. Now, Leslie said he is proud to have a new home with a big yard for his dogs to run in.

After a key ceremony, the couple took a tour of their new home. Though the house had barely begun to fill with new furniture and memories, a favorite picture hung in the bedroom and made the couple engage in a tearful embrace.

“That’s from the Lightning’s playoff game,” Leslie said. “We lost the game, but whatever, it’s a great picture of us.”

Leslie said he looks forward to meeting the neighbors whom he hopes won’t hold Thursday’s loud celebration against him. 

Leslie will drive to Tampa almost every day for work and school as he will attend USF this fall to finish the last year of his bachelor’s in criminology. He said he hopes to get into graduate school for criminal justice administration to eventually become a juvenile corrections manager. 

For now, Leslie said he couldn’t express his gratitude for the charity of those who care about the well-being of military veterans. 

“I don’t know what else to say,” he said. “Semper Fi.”