LAKE ELMO, Minn. -- John Mullen stepped into his new Lake Elmo home Thursday, April 1, his steel prosthetic legs gleaming in the lights of TV cameras.

“It’s completely crazy!” gasped Mullen, amazed by the high-tech gadgetry and accessibility features.

Mullen, a disabled Army veteran, moved into the home with his wife and two children — all of whom were impressed. The house was donated by the Tunnel to Towers Foundation, which provides housing to disabled veterans nationwide.

Before a crowd of about 150 neighbors and reporters, Mullen and the builders of the home joined in a dedication ceremony. Mullen raised the stars-and-stripes on a flagpole in the front yard, with help from 4-year-old son James, then turned for his first look at their new home.

“It seems unreal,” he said.

WDAY logo
listen live
watch live
Newsletter signup for email alerts

A soldier in Afghanistan

Mullen was 19 years old in 2011, serving as a soldier in an Afghanistan village. He stepped on mine, planted in the road.

His legs were blown off below the knees, and his right arm shattered. He spent years recovering, then married and moved to an apartment in Woodbury.

There, his daily life was miserable.

Army veteran Johnathon Mullen looks around his new Lake Elmo home on Thursday, April 1, 2021. Scott Takushi / St. Paul Pioneer Press
Army veteran Johnathon Mullen looks around his new Lake Elmo home on Thursday, April 1, 2021. Scott Takushi / St. Paul Pioneer Press

The doorways were so narrow that he could use his wheelchair only in the kitchen. To use the toilet, he had to scoot on the floor and hoist himself up — hurting his injured arm. Often, he hobbled across the floor on his knees.

The stove, the doorways, the shower and even the light switches all seemed to be working against him.

“Home is supposed to be where you can rest,” he said. “This was not a restful place.”

‘It’s so beautiful’

On Thursday, Mullen and his family inspected the house, room by room, trailed by reporters and photographers.

Mullen opened one door with the touch of a button. Son James lowered the kitchen stove to a wheelchair-friendly levels. Wife Sarah swung a rack down from a cabinet, which would allow access to glassware.

“Look at this! The closet’s as big as the bedroom,” said Mullen in the master bedroom.

In the master bathroom, the low-level toilet was heated, with a pop-up cover. “I won’t have to do this on my knees anymore,” he said.

The family laughed in disbelief as every one of them fit into the shower. Instead of a tiny stall, the shower was the entire end of the seven-foot-wide bathroom, with no doors and no lip to step over.

“It’s so beautiful!” said Sarah.

Local donors contribute

Andrew McClure, national community engagement coordinator for Tunnel to Towers, said the group pays for housing for veterans.

He hopes to complete 116 projects this year — including new homes for veterans, homes for wives of deceased veterans, and paying off mortgages.

Johnathon Mullen and his family arrive at their new Lake Elmo home on Thursday, April 1, 2021. Mullen, an Army veteran, lost both his legs to a bomb in Afghanistan. The Tunnel to Towers Foundation provided the mortgage-free home, which is specially adapted to help catastrophically injured veterans reclaim their day-to-day independence. From left: Johnathan, James, Abigail and wife Sarah. Scott Takushi / St. Paul Pioneer Press
Johnathon Mullen and his family arrive at their new Lake Elmo home on Thursday, April 1, 2021. Mullen, an Army veteran, lost both his legs to a bomb in Afghanistan. The Tunnel to Towers Foundation provided the mortgage-free home, which is specially adapted to help catastrophically injured veterans reclaim their day-to-day independence. From left: Johnathan, James, Abigail and wife Sarah. Scott Takushi / St. Paul Pioneer Press

McClure thanked a list of local donors who contributed flooring, electronics, tools and appliances. One of them, Gula Construction, managed the project.

Reporters asked Mullen to sit in his living room and answer questions for TV cameras. He seemed to struggle for words to thank everyone adequately.

For him, it wasn’t just the gift of a house. It was a home.

“I am completely blown away,” he said.