Offering a Lifeline

May 30, 2011

Two Vietnam veterans are helping a third who’s been living in his garage since his home burned down six years ago. Dennis Quisenberry was an Air Force mechanic from 1966 to 1969, including 16 months in Vietnam. His house on Cardwell Lane burned down in 2005, and he’s been living in his garage since. For the last eight months, Larry Arnett, deputy commissioner at the Kentucky Department of Natural Resources, and Carlos Pugh, former state commander of the VFW, have been trying to help Quisenberry. Arnett was a helicopter pilot and Pugh was a combat engineer – both served in Vietnam.

They want to raise $2,300 to build a tin roof on Quisenberry’s home to prevent further damage. The interior was gutted by fire in 2005 but the structure is still sound, Arnett said.

The materials would cost about $1,700 and about $600 for labor, but Arnett said he hopes some supplies will be donated or services provided pro bono.

Ultimately, the home will require extensive rehabilitation including plumbing and electrical work, Arnett said.

“Dennis wants to remain in his home,” Arnett said.

The State Journal toured the home earlier this month and little remained inside aside from cobwebs, piles of insulation, a charred rack of cooking spices, a box of family photos and a stack of letters. Fire destroyed the interior drywall and plywood roofing.

Muddy water pooled in the garage. Several panels were missing from the garage door and a tarp covered several large holes in the roof.

Arnett got involved after he learned Quisenberry was living there. Arnett’s son lives on Cardwell Lane and he drove past the home hundreds of times while visiting.

“I thought it was empty,” Arnett said.

The garage also contains his few remaining possessions including a small television, refrigerator, microwave oven, bed, easy chair and a partially assembled 1969 Ford Mach 1 car.

Born in Bourbon County in 1947, Quisenberry loved to tinker with cars and motorcycles. He estimated that he’s owned more than 80 vehicles, and Ford Mustangs are his favorite. Quisenberry said he’s owned about 10 motorcycles and prefers Harley-Davidsons.

He bought his first car, a 1952 Ford, at age 15 for $100. He didn’t have a driver’s license and learned to drive the standard transmission on the way home from the dealer, Quisenberry said.

Rather than be drafted into the Army or Marines, Quisenberry enlisted as a mechanic in the Air Force after high school.

“All my friends were getting married and having babies to avoid Vietnam,” he said. “If you had a doctor friend you could get out.”

He worked on airplanes at Ben Wah Air Base in Vietnam. The workshop was located near the perimeter and was often under threat of attack, Quisenberry said.

He was honorably discharged in 1969, and his papers show Quisenberry spent 14 months overseas.

Quisenberry worked at a factory making IBM parts for several years before joining the National Guard in 1976 as a technician.
“The National Guard was the best job I ever had,” he said.

He was a mechanic there for 14 years before being medically discharged. Quisenberry suffers from arthritis in his hands and has knee problems. His feet also are swollen and he had gout previously.

That gave him 18 years of service – two years short of the 20 years required for a full pension and healthcare benefits.

Afterwards, he worked as a security guard and other jobs. Then he started drawing Social Security and a partial pension based on his military service – a decision that would cause problems later.

In 2007, the Social Security Administration sued him to recover $12,000 in excess benefits. He’ll finish paying it back at $240 per month in October.

Quisenberry lived in a camper for a few years but said the confined spaces gave him panic attacks.

“It felt like everything was coming in on me,” he said. “I had to go sit in the truck.”

He bought the house near Evergreen Baptist Church on Cardwell Lane for $35,000 and lived there since 1986, he said. At the time, Cardwell Lane was somewhat isolated with only a few vehicles using the single-lane road every day.

“There was no traffic at all,” Quisenberry said.

Quisenberry was visiting his brother out-of-town in 2005 when his house burned down.

Coming back to Frankfort, he stopped at a store and heard a woman talking about a house fire on Cardwell Lane.

“Sure enough it was mine,” Quisenberry said.

The fire started in the front of the house and was caused by an electrical problem.

His 6-year old pit-bull named Kane also died in the fire.

“We did everything together,” said Quisenberry emotionally.

His daily routine includes watching television, listening to the radio and visiting friends in town – he only eats two meals a day.

Quisenberry is estranged from his father and one brother. He has another brother in Lexington, but he can’t help, Arnett said.

Quisenberry said he lived through the 2009 ice storm in the garage and used the heater in his car to stay warm.

“I just put on more blankets,” he said. “You learn to deal with it.”

Evergreen Baptist Church tried to buy Quisenberry’s house, but he turned them down, Arnett said.

Quisenberry remains determined to stay in his home and has pledged $600 of his personal savings to the project.

“I like being out here,” Quisenberry said. “I have two dogs and a cat buried in the yard.”

However, he also owes $300 in back property taxes, Quisenberry said.

“They’re taking everything he’s got,” Pugh said. “They want to kick you when you’re down.”

Contributions may be sent to the Homeless Vet Recovery Fund, c/o Larry Arnett, 275 Boone Estates Road, Frankfort, Ky., 40601.