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York veteran with new home wants to help others

Written by Mike Argento/York Daily Record | Nov 11, 2015 8:42 AM
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Sgt. Michael Collazo points out some of the work his wife Claudia did in the living room of their York city home, while he was stationed in Afghanistan in 2012. He came home to find that she helped to build a new house through a unique military Habitat for Humanity program by working hundreds of community service hours. (Photo: Jason Plotkin, Daily Record)

Sgt. Michael Collazo served in Afghanistan with the Army, and now he's on a mission to help veterans get a decent home

(Undated) -- Sgt. Michael Collazo joined the Army Reserves in 2007, when he was 22.

He just wanted to see what it was all about. He hadn't had kin who served in the military, and he was curious about it. He didn't know what it was about.

But he was willing to take a chance. He likes to work hard -- "I like to be tired when I get home from work," he said -- and likes a challenge, so it seemed to fit the bill.

And he thought his skills in carpentry, masonry and plumbing would be needed.

There was a chance he would be deployed to a war zone. The reserves had been active in the U.S. missions in Afghanistan and Iraq. He knew that, and his family knew that. Still, they were supportive. Service was something to be proud of.

And now, after a deployment in Afghanistan, the York man said, "In retrospect, I don't know what I was thinking."

***

When he left in late 2011 for the year-long deployment, he and his wife, Claudia, had a daughter, Emily, born just before he left for boot camp in 2007. And they were set to help build a new house through Habitat for Humanity's Veterans Building program, the agency's first such project.

Construction on the house began, and ended, while he was out of the country.

He felt bad about that. He could have helped. As it was, Claudia picked up the slack, putting in 450 hours on the project, doing everything from hanging drywall to painting and laying carpet. Other veterans and service personnel volunteered, donating their hours to cover Collazo's commitment to put work into the project while he was deployed, said Stacey Sharland, family services manager for York Habitat. "The veterans and military personnel really stepped up," she said.

He was busy in Afghanistan, ironically, teaching Afghanis construction skills.

"It was a humbling experience," he said. "Here, we complain about our Internet service cutting out. There, they don't even have shoes."

He served with the 668th Engineering Company out of Fort Bliss, Texas. The unit's mission was to assist the Afghan people in rebuilding the country's infrastructure, decimated by years of privation and war.

It wasn't a combat mission. It was a humanitarian mission, one that could help the war effort by winning hearts and minds.

Specifically, he was assigned to a schoolhouse, teaching construction skills to the locals.

Some things were different, he said. For instance, he had to teach the locals how to frame homes using the notched timbers. "It's not easy to get nails and screws there," he said. "And they're expensive."

He also taught the locals how to build small projects, such as crafting a small wooden box to store their Qurans.

It was about teaching the locals to be more self-sufficient. But the training could lead to gainful employment. Some of his students, he said, got jobs after going through the training, working for contractors who did work at the U.S. and allied bases.

Still, he said, it wasn't like summer camp.

"It didn't matter where you were," he said, "it is a very hostile place. You're always on your toes. Even when he taught at the schoolhouse, he carried a sidearm.

Not all of the people are hostile. In fact, he said, the Afghan people are very friendly and generous. They are very social, often inviting strangers to have tea and talk.

It was a strange dichotomy, he said. On the one hand, the people could be friendly and welcoming. And yet, some of them resent America's presence in their country and will do anything to express that resentment.

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Carmen Collazo gives a kiss to her 2-year-old granddaughter Gabriela in the kitchen of their York city home on Monday, Nov. 2, 2015. When Collazo's son and Gabriela's father, Michael came home from Afghanistan in 2012, to find that his wife Claudia helped to build a new house through a unique military Habitat for Humanity program by working hundreds of community service hours. (Photo: Jason Plotkin, Daily Record)

***

He came home in November 2012.

He settled in his new home and got a job working at the Amazon.com distribution facility in northern York County. He and Claudia had another child. Emily, now 7, has a little sister, Gabriela, 2.

"Here I am, outnumbered in my own home," he joked.

He has been doing interviews lately, helping Habitat for Humanity promote its latest Veterans Build. The organization has also asked him to deliver some remarks at a fund-raising event.

"I'm not much of a public speaker," Collazo said. "I hope they at least give me some bullet points."

The organization is still searching for a veteran family in need of a new home, and Collazo said he hopes to help them find one.

Habitat allowed his family to buy a decent home, one half of a newly built duplex on Company Street in York. He wants to be able to help any way he can.

"I am just very humbled and grateful for all they did for my family," he said. "Whatever I can do, I'll do."

***

He has been out of the reserves for a couple of years.

But he recently re-enlisted.

Speaking about his decision to do so, he recalled another deployment -- a humanitarian mission to the Dominican Republic to assist in the construction of a clinic. The Dominican Republic may be more prosperous than its neighbor, Haiti, but still there is crushing poverty in parts of the island.

That, combined with his service in Afghanistan, has changed him

"It makes you more grateful," he said. "A lot of people are in situations that are lot worse, and get by on a lot less, than we have in this country. It's humbling. It makes you feel you can make a difference."


This article comes to us through a partnership between York Daily Record and WITF.

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