November 11, 2007 - The typical observance of Veterans Day got flipped around Sunday at the Kansas City, Kan., setting of "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition."
Instead of a community ceremony to thank veterans for their service, wounded veteran and new homeowner Daniel Gilyeat thanked the community for its service.
After all, in just one week, about 3,600 people had converged on Gilyeat's neighborhood to tear down his leaky, drafty bungalow. They replaced it with an expansive ranch featuring nearly 3,000 square feet, a concrete-tile roof, wrought-iron front doors and children's bedrooms decorated in their favorite themes.
Filming one of the final scenes of the ABC TV show to be broadcast in February, the tattooed and mohawked Gilyeat and his four young children waved and whooped it up for the camera in front of their new home. "Love our house," Gilyeat yelled. "Thank you, America."
Later, talking publicly for the first time since seeing his new dwelling on Saturday, the former Marine said he got bits of information about the reconstruction from friends while he was on a show-funded vacation in California. But when he finally saw the finished product, with its tall roof line, copper gutters and yellow and purple mums lining the front walk, he said "it literally took the wind out of me."
Gilyeat, the Kansas City, Kan., native and single father who walks with a prosthetic left leg after surviving a tank mine in Iraq, added: "I never expected a thank you for what I do ... But wow! That's all I can say. Wow!"
How this life-changing experience came about was a lucky confluence of connections and circumstances.
Meredith Iler of Houston started a charity called Helping A Hero to build homes for wounded veterans. Iler is the daughter of deceased Kansas City executive Morgan Maxfield, so she wanted to build some homes in the Kansas City area. A Marine's wife in Houston gave her a tip about someone in Kansas City she should consider - Gilyeat.
Iler flew here in September, interviewed Gilyeat and asked him to fill out a Helping A Hero application. But she was so taken by his story - losing his leg, then having his marriage crumble, but keeping his spirits up - that she contacted an "Extreme Makeover" producer. Within days, the show was in KCK to check him out. The rest is history.
"To know their lives will never be the same, that's just an unbelievable feeling," Iler said Sunday when she came by the new house.
Iler was there for a reason: to announce that $84,000 had been raised to pay off Gilyeat's remaining mortgage on his old house. Iler, who's long been involved in politics, said she raised the money in 48 hours just through e-mail connections. The donors came from 10 states, she said, and included former U.S. Secretary of Commerce Robert Mosbacher.
Gilyeat was showered with other gifts, too, on Sunday: a proclamation from Kansas City, Kan., Mayor Joe Reardon; a four-year college scholarship from Internet-based Grantham University; and college scholarships for Gilyeat's children, ages 4 to 9, from Kansas City Kansas Community College.
For now, though, those children are getting something of a playhouse. The show keeps details of the home's interior under wraps until the program airs on television, and the front windows remained covered Sunday. But some of Gilyeat's neighbors caught a few glimpses inside during the week.
The show put up most neighbors in a hotel, so they wouldn't have to deal with the barrage of trucks and the around-the-clock noise. But next-door neighbors Mike and Carol Shewell stuck around because they didn't want to miss "a front-row seat" to a TV show, as Carol put it.
She spent days walking around taking pictures for an eventual scrapbook she intends to give Gilyeat. She also peeked inside windows and saw a boy's bedroom being outfitted with a bed made of car parts, complete with a door to get into the bed, plus a girl's garden-themed bedroom that included a tree.
"You can't fathom this unless you see it," she said.