It is not often that you meet a hero on an ordinary day. When it happens, you take notice. No, not Captain America. No star-spangled uniform with an impenetrable shield. Just an old-fashioned, patriotic and gentle man who believes in country, family and freedom. Northwest Montana has the privilege of being “home” to such a man.
Bill Austin is not unique in how he ended up in Montana. However, there are noteworthy differences. Like many of our newer residents, Bill and his wife Janet found their way to Northwest Montana for a vacation and fell in love with the area. They were living in Maryland at the time and were searching for a new place to call home. Bill had retired from an illustrious military career, rich with commendations and spanning the globe, including a series of deployments to Kosovo, Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan. Bill retired from service with a traumatic brain injury (TBI) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which would then impact his civilian life.
It has always fallen on the few to sacrifice for the many. For those who bravely make that decision, a place to call their own becomes defining. It will be their solace, a reward for a life well spent. Montana has become that place for the Austin family. Readjusting to life outside of a combat zone is fraught with new dangers and uncertainties. And spending decades within a military mindset often makes transitioning back into civilian life challenging. For those with PTSD, the wounds, while invisible, are no less invasive. To assist in coping with the complexities of his condition, Bill has a companion and service dog named JP. His primary function is to anticipate Bill’s anxieties and reactions in any situation. To say the least, JP is a show stopper. He is lumbering and gangly with a head the size of most people’s laps – he is a gentle giant, a Great Dane. He is not different than any other adolescent dog until he puts his vest on and it’s time to go to “work.” Then JP transforms into a no nonsense, all business, body guard and personal guide. The addition of JP changed Bill’s ability to cope with his injuries and improved his daily quality of life. Bill and Janet have a dream to pair dogs with other injured veterans and moving to Montana was integral in making that dream a reality.
Enter Chuck Olson and Tim Carter, broker/owners of Chuck Olson Real Estate and the sole local real estate affiliates of a program designed to assist veterans and first responders in finding a house and becoming homeowners. “Homes For Heroes” is an organization that was created in Minneapolis in the wake of 9/11. It is a Realtor and Lender program designed to give back to those who serve our nation and communities each day. It is the program that introduced the Austins to home ownership in Northwest Montana. The process allows “heroes” who qualify to work with local lenders and Realtors who have volunteered to donate a portion of their fees and commissions back to the individual. This organized network of real estate-based business professionals began in 2002 and has grown exponentially in the past decade. Through discounted services, Homes For Heroes has saved its participants over $3,740,000. In many cases, it is these dollars that allow the recipients to actually realize their dream and have a place of their own. With Chuck and Tim’s long history of supporting veterans, participating in this program was inevitable.
Visiting the Austins’ ranch south of Polson, the first thing you notice is the tranquility and serenity of the surroundings. The home is immaculate and resonates pride of ownership. Everything has a place and is in its place. JP is the size of the couch. The property is pastured and fenced for horses and cattle. The chicken coop is more like the chicken Hilton. JP diligently spends his days at Bill’s side. He is now a country service dog and enjoys exploring the park, hiking and swimming. His consistency aids in Bill’s ability to relax and find pleasure in the Montana lifestyle. Their acreage also has an outbuilding that the Austins hope to turn into temporary housing for other veterans with injuries similar to Bill’s. It is their dream to pair those heroes with puppies and train the dogs to be loyal companions and working service dogs. It is their dream that veterans who suffer from traumatic brain injuries and PTSD will not have to navigate civilian life on their own. It is their dream to continue to serve and give back to their community. As a young woman, Janet visualized and painted a landscape that she shares with visitors. It is a pasture, fenced with horses, surrounded by mountains. It is a lovely painting. It is also an eerie duplicate of the view from the porch of their new house. She knew they were home the moment they arrived.
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