A House Built for Honor
Paul House and Bill Emery share a love of the outdoors.
“Bill is a logger and I was a logger so we’d bump into each other in the woods,” said House.
Both men were raised in Lee.
“I went to school with Paul’s brothers,” said Bill Emery.
“I graduated with Bill’s wife, Quie,” added Paul.
Both men also raised families in Lee.
“I taught Blair (Emery) Spanish for two years at Lee Academy,” said Paul’s wife, Dee House. “I saw him every other day.”
“Blair and Joel (House) were in sports together,” said Bill Emery.
And after high school, both Blair and Joel signed up for the military. Both made the rank of sergeant and both were deployed to Iraq. Sgt. House served with the Army’s 1st Cavalry Division out of Fort Hood, Texas. Sgt. Emery was stationed at Fort Lewis, Washington with the 571st Military Police Company, 97th Military Police Battalion, 18th Military Police Brigade.
Sadly, both sons would make the ultimate sacrifice to their country.
On June 23, 2007, 22-year-old Joel House was killed by an improvised explosive device (IED).
Just five months later, the town of Lee lost its second resident when an IED went off near 24-year-old Blair Emery’s vehicle.
According to reports, Lee is the smallest town in America to suffer multiple Iraq war casualties.
“Paul was one of the first ones here after Blair was killed,” said Bill Emery. “And he was here six days a week after that. He helped me a lot, preparing for what was going to happen next.”
“It’s a family that you don’t want to belong to,” added Paul House. “But it’s good that you have each other to talk to and share what you’re going through.”
Soon after Joel’s death, the Houses attended a military memorial service at Fort Hood. They felt great comfort in being around other military families. Paul and Dee started thinking about how they could provide such comfort and support to veterans with a program here in Maine.
“Paul approached me with the idea of bringing veterans up to Maine for a retreat,” said Emery. “And I thought it was a great idea.”
House in the Woods became a non-profit in 2010, welcoming its first group of veterans that May. Folks around the Lee area opened their camps to host military members who served in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Gulf War, Korean War and Vietnam War. Programs include moose, deer, bear and bird hunting as well as fishing, trail riding, kayaking and canoeing. The veteran’s families are also invited.
“My dad was in the Navy so I know what it’s like to give up your dad or your mom for up to a year at a time,” said Dee House. “It’s been a priority for us to provide an opportunity for families to have quality time together. Family is so precious to us.”
To date, more than 500 veterans have participated in House in the Woods programs.
“When you see them come, after a couple of days you see them transform into a different person almost,” said Emery. “That’s what’s amazing to me about it.”
The five-year plan for House in the Woods always included some sort of permanent structure. And while Paul was on board from the start, Dee took a bit more convincing.
“Back in the day, Paul would say, ‘We’re going to have a veteran’s program, we’re going to build a building.’ And I would say, ‘Yeah, tell me how that’s going to work,’” said Dee, laughing at the memory. “I wasn’t always a believer. And obviously, I’ve stopped doubting him.”
That’s because work is now in the final stages of an 80 by 90 square foot lodge, office, and storage complex on more than four acres of land in the woods of Lee. There will be six bedrooms all with a bathroom and shower. The entire complex will be wheelchair accessible.
“We were always hoping for this, but it’s come along a little quicker than we thought,” said Emery.
Emery’s boss, Brian Souers of Treeline, did all of the site prep and tree cutting of the lot. Lane Construction heard about the project and donated all the cement. “This is a humongous building,” said Dee House. “It’s probably the second tallest building in the town of Lee next to the high school.”
As word got out, the donations came in.
“People you don’t even know will come up with pretty large checks,” said Emery. “It’s pretty amazing.”
To date, more than $800,000 has been donated to the House in the Woods building project.
“People would hear about House in the Woods and want to see what we’re doing,” explains Dee. “Paul would take them up and tell them about the building and how we were going to help more veterans. And you could see the twinkle in their eyes. They attach on to that vision and want to help make it happen.”
One of those visionaries is Fujitsu General America, a Fairfield, New Jersey company that makes ductless cooling and heating systems.
“It was just such a powerful story,” said Thomas Carney, Fujitsu General America’s director of sales.
Carney and a group of engineers traveled to Lee last spring. They visited the cemetery where Joel and Blair are buried as well as the construction site.
“I’ll tell you what, it’s been on my mind every day since then,” Carney said. “I get emotional just thinking about it. Driving through Lee with all the flags, it’s what my vision of America is.”
Fujitsu agreed to donate 26 state-of-the-art cooling and heating units for the building, a value of more than $150,000. “I would say this is the biggest charitable project we’ve ever done,” said Carney. “We knew this was the right thing to do.”
The S. Douglas and Rita C. Sukeforth Charitable Foundation agreed to loan the remaining dollars needed to complete construction. “No interest, no deadline to pay it back, just a handshake and a thank you,” said Dee House.
The Houses and the Emerys hope the House in the Woods lodge will be completed by early spring. They plan to start offering retreats there in early summer.
“We used to always joke about it when we first started,” said Bill Emery. “It’s like a car—we started in first gear, then it was in second gear, now we’re in an airplane.” He pauses to chuckle. “It’s really taken off.”
And they’re not done yet.
“There’s a piece of property that adjoins ours, about 50 acres,” said Paul House. “We want to clear a portion of that to expand our parking lot and then we want to plant apple trees, put in some horseshoe pits and volleyballs net.”
“Possibly some camper sites,” added Dee House.
Both families admit it’s been a whirlwind couple of years.
“When that building is done, we’re gonna be by the fireplace in the great room, sitting on the couch with our feet up and saying to ourselves, ‘How in the world did this happen?’” said Paul House. “That’s why we call it our ‘miracle building.’ The day that we found out Joel was killed, one of the things I said was, ‘God doesn’t make mistakes.’ So it’s not really surprising about what’s being done. We’re actually ready and even anxious to see what’s next.”
Nine years after Blair’s death, Bill Emery said he still “kind of takes it just as it happens.”
Emery knows the good work House in the Woods is doing for veterans and their families, and he’s looking forward to the many more that will benefit once the complex is complete.
“I always say, ‘We tried to make two wrongs a right this time.’”