Major Jonathan Turnbull, who lost his vision during a tour in Syria, says the changes to his home will "greatly impact his independence"
Army Veteran Jonathan Turnbull, who lost his sight while serving in Syria as a result of a suicide bomber attack in 2019, found out two years ago that Drew Barrymore, The Home Depot Foundation and Tunnels to Towers Foundation were partnering to completely renovate his family's Michigan home to make it easier for him to live in — and to pay off his mortgage.
Last week, Jonathan, his wife Samantha and their three children got to experience their newly-renovated custom smart home.
“It’s absolutely wonderful,” Jonathan Turnbull, 37, tells PEOPLE. “They've given us hope for the future because they're letting us know: 'No matter what happens, obstacles, adversity you might face, we're here to help.' ”
The Turnbulls met at as kids at church camp in Howell, Mich. in the summer of 2001. Samantha was a 12-year-old camper, and Jonathan was a 15-year-old lifeguard.
“My grandmother met Jon and she goes, ‘Sam, you better hang on to that boy, because you’re going to marry him one day,’” says Samantha, 34.
They reconnected at church three years later, and married June 5, 2010, five days after he graduated from West Point.
Jonathan served five tours in Afghanistan, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Syria.
On January 15, 2019 he had orders to come home from deployment. He called his wife, saying "Please don't be mad," but he had volunteered to stay for another mission. He was doing humanitarian work, helping girls attend school in Syria. She told him she understood. “I knew how much he loved his job,” she says. “I said, 'Wear your helmet and be safe.' "
He promised to call in the morning when she was driving their son to school.
In the morning, her phone was buzzing – but with news alerts. She saw there was an ISIS suicide bomber in Manbij, the city where she knew her husband was headed. Scouring news coverage, she recognized her husband’s truck from a photo he had sent for their Christmas card.
“That’s when I knew Jon was in that explosion,” Samantha tells PEOPLE.
Later that day there was a knock on the door. Officials in his chain of command told Samantha that he had already died several times, but they had been able to revive him. They didn’t want to fly her to the hospital in Germany, because they thought he would likely die before she arrived.
“They said, ‘There’s a zero percent chance your husband’s going to make it 12 hours,’ ” she remembers.
But he continued to pull through, so Samantha flew to Germany to be with him. Doctors told her he would never walk again or remember her. At his bedside, she felt him squeeze her hand three times, their family’s way of saying, “I love you.”
“We had different miracles happen throughout his recovery,” his wife says.
After his medical retirement, the couple co-authored the book Zero Percent Chance, because that was the initial prediction for his survival — and once he beat those odds, they still thought he'd never walk again.
“Rather than telling me what I can’t do, challenge me. Let me show you what I can do,” he says. “That’s been our mantra.”
Good things have happened since he retired, he says. He spends more time with his family; he and his wife have had two more children. They share sons Ian, 11, and Scotty, 2, and daughter Ellie, 1.
“The power of positivity is so important, rather than being negative or down in the dumps,” he says. “Focus on the good things in your life. My mom always told me happiness is a choice.”
After moving into their rustic log cabin on 20 acres in Gaylord, Michigan in 2021, the Turnbulls watched as the renovation crew completely remade the inside of their home.
“They had solutions to problems we didn’t even know we had,” Jonathan says.
The redesigned custom smart home has pathways in the flooring so he knows where he is, instead of just waiting until he bumps into things, which has improved his confidence making his way around his house.
“I know I could wake up at three o'clock in the morning when the baby's asleep. I can get down to the baby's room, which is downstairs. I'm not going to get lost. I know where her room is. I can get her, I can come back upstairs,” he says.
Using the home's smart technology, he can turn on and off the lights, lock the doors, and adjust the temperature in the home. Security cameras announce when a car is pulling up, and the doors have chimes.
“The technology is just so incredible to help our veterans who really need it,” says Shannon Gerber, Executive Director of The Home Depot Foundation. “We are so proud that we could really help.”
The home's kitchen layout was changed so Jonathan can cook safely.
“I'll be able to get up in the morning and do more than just make some coffee. I could make some pancakes or something good to help Samantha out. She doesn't have to worry about me burning the house down,” Jonathan says. “It's made things a lot more safe, which is going to greatly impact my independence in the house.”
The best part, Samantha says, is her children's reaction.
“This feels like a home now,” Samantha says. “We love it so much ... we're ready to start making memories here.”
Jonathan travels the country to share his story and spend time with other veterans, going hunting and fishing with them (he recently killed a 300 pound bear, and shot and killed a buffalo with a bow and arrow). He encourages other veterans to communicate with one another and stay hopeful.
"Hope is one of our most powerful weapons systems," he says. "Because hope can mobilize so much and gives inspiration and people are able to act. It's such a beautiful thing. That's what we want to do. That's what Tunnel the Towers and the Home Depot Foundations did for us, gave us hope for the future. 'Hey, we'll help you out. We'll take a few of these burdens off your plate. You don't have to worry about those. We got it.' We want to do the same thing for others.”
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