BARNEGAT TOWNSHIP — South Jersey is known for real estate bargains these days, but nobody got as good a deal Wednesday as Frank and Tameka Ball.
The couple was given the keys to a three-bedroom house on a quiet, friendly looking street in southern Ocean County for free — no mortgage, no interest rate, no points. But the way Frank Ball qualified for that dream deal was no bargain.
Ball, now a 41-year-old business major at Stockton University, served with the Army in Iraq. His Bradley fighting vehicle was blown up by mines, which sent a piece of shrapnel into his head, gave him a concussion and left him with a traumatic brain injury.
“I’ve been blown up a lot,” said Ball, a Purple Heart recipient. That eventually put him in touch with the Military Warriors Support Foundation, and that group, based in Texas, works with Wells Fargo bank to donate mortgage-free houses to wounded veterans.
Wells Fargo said that since 2012, the bank has donated about 300 homes, with a value of more than $50 million, to veterans in all 50 states.
A spokeswoman said Wednesday the bank acquired those donated homes through foreclosures. And while Wells Fargo has given them through various organizations, the bank said it has donated more than 200 through the Military Warriors foundation.
The Balls saw their new home Wednesday, a day before their 14th wedding anniversary. They got married two weeks after they met — and two weeks before Frank was deployed to Iraq.
Tameka Ball was tearful describing her joy at seeing her new home.
“This is really a dream come true,” she said.
Her husband, who also injured his back in Iraq, said he was dealing with “horrible PTSD” after he left the Army. When he officially retired, he started getting the help he desperately needed from a Veterans Administration counselor.
“I said, ‘They’re never going to give me a house,’” Frank Ball said Wednesday, standing in his new backyard and remembering telling the counselor “there are people who are way worse off than I am, and who probably deserve it far more than I do.”
That conversation was last year in Oregon, where the couple shared a 500-square-foot apartment with their 70-pound labradoodle, Daisy. They had moved there for Frank to go to Portland State University, but they were struggling financially, especially after Tameka Ball ran into health problems and started running up medical bills.
The VA counselor “kept after me,” Frank Ball said, urging him to apply to the Military Warriors group for one of the houses. So he did, in Portland, but was turned down. Then he started looking at other options across the country and found the Barnegat house in southern Ocean County.
He grew up mainly in Camden County and knew Long Beach Island well, from fishing trips to Barnegat Light and visits to relatives in Beach Haven. He got an OK from his wife to move back to New Jersey, then applied to the Military Warriors group. Within a month, he was shocked to find out they got this house.
Stockton, about a half hour away, has been a perfect fit, because “they’re so supportive of vets,” Frank Ball said. “I don’t want to go anywhere else.”
One of the people helping the couple celebrate their new home was Tom O’Donnell, Stockton’s dean of Veterans Affairs. He said Ball was the first veteran enrolled at Stockton to get a free house, but “I hope there will be many more. … There are so many foreclosure homes around, especially in Atlantic County.”
Frank Ball says he’s doing whatever he can to let other veterans — both at Stockton and his military friends — know about this dream real estate deal.
“Somebody helped me, and that changed my life,” he said. Without this program, “owning a home probably wasn’t in the cards for us for 10 years, at least.”