Free Home Wows War Hero in The Savannas

This article by Hanna Marcus safe_imageoriginally appeared on July 2, 2014 in the Orlando Sentinel.

CLERMONT — Army veteran Socheat “Sok” Mom reacted instinctively after a blast from a suicide bomber in Afghanistan.

Knocked to the ground bleeding and unconscious, Mom remembers waking up and limping over to help save the other 13 members of his platoon injured in the 2012 explosion. He was awarded a Purple Heart and Army Commendation Medal with “V” Device for “valorous actions under enemy fire.”

On Wednesday, he received more accolades for his heroism — and the keys to a newly remodeled, mortgage-free home thanks to a partnership between Bank of America and the Military Warriors Support Foundation.

“It’s so overwhelming,” the former Army staff sergeant said of the 1,350-square-foot home, which had been abandoned. “When I first walked in, all I could think was, ‘This is amazing.'”

Dozens of miniature American flags poked out of the lawn of the tan-and-white home in The Savannas subdivision off U.S. Highway 27 to greet Mom; his wife, Dao; and their daughter, Keira, 8. Eleven veterans from the Patriot Guard held much larger American flags over their hearts and recited the Pledge of Allegiance as a cluster of Bank of America representatives looked on.

Dad, mom and daughter held hands as they walked toward their new home for the first time. Neighbors gathered across the street, waving, clapping and shouting, “Welcome to the neighborhood.” John Moskos, Central Florida president of Bank of America, slipped a set of keys out of a small red bag and into Dao’s hands.

The three-bedroom, two-bathroom house had been fixed up after years of sitting vacant. Though it was still devoid of their furniture and mementos, the Moms were happy to see a picture frame filled with their family photos had been hung on a bare wall as a welcoming gesture.

Keira also got another surprise when she stepped into a room with gifts piled up just for her. She looked to her mother, asking, “Is this for me?” before grabbing a bottle of bubbles and blowing soapy circles around the room.

Dao Mom stepped into the fenced backyard, delicately touching leaves and flashing soft smiles at her husband and daughter. Sok Mom’s Cambodian mother and sister, who live in Zephyrhills, shuffled around the kitchen, sharing homemade egg rolls and doughnuts brought in for the occasion.

Mom — who moved with his family to California from Cambodia when he was a young boy — said his favorite part of the house is between the backyard — where there’s room for picnics, one of Dao’s favorite activities — and the “massive bedrooms.”

They already feel at home, but the reality that they own the house will take some time to sink in.

“This is my first house,” Dao said. “When we saw everyone outside, we thought, ‘What do we do?’ We were so overwhelmed — she [Keira] didn’t know what we were doing until we got here and she walked in. It’s not going to hit us until a month down the line.”

The Mom family is among 240 families in Florida given keys to mortgage-free homes to honor their military service. Moskos has been a part of the process twice before, though for him, watching the families see their homes for the first time never gets old.

“It’s just an honor to do that for a returning veteran and his family, and just to see the look on their faces,” he said.

Mom left the army, where he was last stationed at Fort Lewis, Wash., in April. He was medically retired because of the severe injuries he suffered when the explosion tore through his leg and splintered his knees and back with shrapnel.

Looking to the future, the former military fire-support specialist said he plans to hunt for a government job. He also plans to enroll Keira in school and support Dao as she continues her education.

But for now, the family will focus on moving in belongings and getting comfortable in the home — celebrating independence on the Fourth of July.

“We’ll probably have some family come over to the house,” he said. “But, you know, we’ve got to wait for the furniture to come in.”

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