BRADENTON -- As scores of neighbors, friends, veteran volunteers and production staff gathered near a huge American flag rippling from the elevated ladder of a county firetruck marking the residence of a new neighborhood celebrity, an Iraq war veteran received a reward nearly 10 years to the day he was blinded by a roadside bomb.
"Military Makeover," a Lifetime reality series that performs massive home upgrades for veterans facing multiple challenges, gave the red carpet treatment to Aaron Cornelius and his wife, Melissa, before applauding well-wishers lining the driveway. Upon stepping out of his Chevy Suburban, Cornelius, 49, received a bear hug from Marcus Luttrell, the Navy SEAL whose ordeal under fire in Afghanistan was immortalized in the 2013 Hollywood film "The Lone Survivor."
As he and Melissa toured the Norris Furniture showroom in Sarasota the day before -- Norris supplied much of the Makeover furnishings -- Cornelius compared the event to winning the lottery. "Thank you, thank you, thank you," he said. "That's all I can say. Except from now on, you're all on my Christmas list."
Exactly how "Military Makeover" transformed the Cornelius household is a secret that won't be unveiled until the three-part series airs, beginning on May 25 and concluding on June 22. The family was sequestered during the weeklong project. According to "Makeover" creative director Arash Farsi, each home upgrade can increase the value of a house from anywhere between $75,000 and $100,000. "Sometimes," he said, "we literally do tear down the whole place."
Much of the customization, said Jennifer Bertrand, a designer for HGTV, involves not only voice-command features, but textures, catering to a sense of touch, pathways easily cleared. "Everyone deserves a home that works for them," she said.
Judging from Melissa's shriek of apparent pleasure as she stepped into the front doorway, the modifications must have hit the right notes. As the production crew kept prying media eyes at bay and staged another take to capture the right level of spontaneity, Cornelius joked, "I can't see anything -- I promise!"
When "Military Makeover" called Wounded Warriors this year looking for a good candidate, Army veteran John Pruden says Cornelius -- who mentors young veterans and assists older ones with bureaucratic paperwork -- was an easy choice. Pruden, the nonprofit's senior relations specialist, served alongside Cornelius in Iraq and lost a leg there in 2003.
"I couldn't think of anybody more deserving," said Pruden. "Aaron is not a 'gimme gimme' guy. He never asks anything for himself."
Cornelius was a platoon sergeant with the Third Infantry Division during the 2003 invasion, and he returned for tours in 2005 and 2008. Ten years ago, on April 19, Easter Sunday, his unit was coming to the rescue of an inexperienced tank platoon that wandered into an ambush in the Dora district south of Baghdad.
Cornelius was riding a Bradley Fighting Vehicle when it struck an improvised explosive device that punctured arteries in his neck and took off part of his skull. Immediately blinded, he never lost consciousness and continued to bark out orders until help arrived. Five comrades burned to death, but his actions saved many more and earned him the Bronze Star.
A subsequent eye surgery lasted nine hours, and he endured 12 surgeries to repair his skull. Cornelius' wife died unexpectedly at their Bradenton home in 2012, and "I kinda went down the wrong path for a while, but I've been able to get back out." He married again last year, and is rearing five daughters.
Cornelius said the hardest part of his recovery was the realization that he would never see his family again, particularly his oldest daughter. The last time he saw her, she was 7. She's 16 now. He remembers when she came running up to his hospital bed after he returned to the States.
"She gave me a little Velcro rabbit to put around my nursing button so I could find it. 'Here, daddy, daddy.'" His voice quavered only slightly. "And that just tore me up." ___
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