JUPITER — Army Staff Sgt. Michael Montange was leading a convoy in Baghdad, Iraq, some 15 years ago when he was hit by a roadside bomb.
After a medically-induced coma, he awoke three months later. His left leg and hip had been severely damaged. He would need several surgeries over five years, and even then, he had only a 30% chance to use his left leg again.
After more than two years of surgeries and rehabilitation, Montange had his leg amputated and found himself negotiating life in Michigan winters in a wheelchair.
‘Designed to restore freedom’:Army veteran wounded in Afghanistan gets keys to new home
“So I came down to Florida. And I never want to see snow again,” Montange said.
For the last decade-and-a-half, Montange has lived in several homes in both Michigan and Florida — none of them wheelchair-accessible.
Every home has come with daily obstacles, from the height of the cabinets to elevated door jambs, and beyond. But Montange doesn’t have to pop a wheelie over his threshold or have his wife, Cami Sue Huston, help him cook anymore.
In August, the veteran and his wife moved into a home built for him just west of Jupiter in Palm Beach Country Estates off Donald Ross Road.
Home is a gift from nonprofit serving veterans injured in combat
The foundation responsible for making Michael and Cami Sue’s everyday life easier is Homes For Our Troops, a national charity that helps to empower veterans with homes specially fitted to their needs.
It is at least the third Palm Beach County home that the nonprofit has built in recent years, after Jupiter Farms and The Acreage.
“When I went home, I moved into my parents’ house while I was looking for a house,” Montange said. “And if it snowed, until somebody shoveled that thing, I wasn’t going anywhere.”
“And the door jambs were high, in order to keep out the snow and weather. I had to pick up the wheels to go over their entranceway and there were steps in the front. If I wanted to go out, I had to go out the back door. Period.”
Five years ago, Montange was renting in Cape Coral when he met his wife on the dating website Match.com.
“She messaged me and I messaged back: ‘Do you play Monopoly?’ And she said, ‘Yeah,’ and then we met that Sunday at Starbucks,” Montange said. “And then every day that week.”
During their second week of dating, Montange moved into Cami Sue’s three-bedroom, two-bath, 1,400 square-foot apartment. Another living space with narrow doorways, high door jambs and a showerthat was inaccessible to Michael.
“Anytime you make adjustments to your living situation, there’s always walking on eggshells and stuff like that. But honestly, I’m so in love with him, it didn’t matter,” Huston said through watery eyes.
In their new home, there are no eggshells.
What makes this house a home
The counter spaces are low enough for Michael to make his own meals without hoisting himself up to reach ingredients or tools on tall shelves. There are features built into the couple’s cabinetry and pantry that make it easy for Montange to reach to the back of a shelf, or grab a ceramic bowl without fear of breaking it.
The bottom of their oven is level with the countertop, which allows Montange to transfer hot pans onto the counter without bending over and lifting heavy and hot dishes. Although Huston seems to do all the cooking. Montange just wants to be able to reach the mac and cheese box without toppling everything on the shelf.
The doorways are wide enough for a wheelchair , and the doors have a push-to-open button, Montange can use when his hands are full. He also has a remote control that opens each door from the outside.
Every door jamb is level with the outside concrete path, which wraps around the house. For the first time, Montange doesn’t have to wriggle his wheelchair through the grass to enjoy his home’s outdoor spaces.
Few realize the countless small obstacles that homes can pose for someone in a wheelchair, until they’ve toured a home made to accommodate one. Light switches, doorbells and showers are all re-thought.
“Moving in really opened my eyes,” Montange said. “Just seeing the house in the first place was like, ‘Wow. … I’m going to have all this room to move around and I’m not going to hit things.’ Finding the small things, like the Ring camera or the doors that open themselves.”
Now, the two now have equal footing in the ages-old couples argument.
“ I’m actually kind of disappointed you figured out … that the thermostats are lower,” Huston said to Montange with a laugh.
Lianna Norman covers northern Palm Beach County for the Palm Beach Post. You can reach her at: [email protected] Follow her Twitter feed @LiannaNorman to see her reporting.