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McLean County Habitat Names First 'Hero House' For Fallen Soldier

A man and woman side by side at a table looking at photos
Colleen Reynolds
Habitat for Humanity Construction Manager Bill Waller and Vonda Rodgers look over photos of her son Josh, who was killed during a raid on an Islamic State compound in eastern Afghanistan on April 27, 2017.

Bill Waller wiped tears from his eyes as he recalled meeting Vonda Rodgers for the first time.

The Habitat for Humanity of McLean County construction manager had been behind Rodgers at the grocery store previously but the usually outgoing Waller said he just couldn't introduce himself to the mother of U.S. Army Ranger Josh Rodgers, who at age 22 died in combat during his third tour of duty.

Rodgers was one of two American soldiers killed in April 2017 during a raid on an Islamic State compound in eastern Afghanistan in the early minutes of a fierce firefight.

When Waller finally met Vonda Rodgers, it was a chance encounter. The soldier's mom was working on a Habitat for Humanity construction site as a member of State Farm's Military Affinity Group.

Group of men and women on a building site with scaffolding.
Credit Photo provided courtesy of Habitat of Humanity of McLean County
Members of State Farm's Military Affinity Group, which volunteered for a Habitat build because the home was going to be occupied by a veteran.

After a brief conversation, Waller raced back to his truck and just began sobbing because he deeply felt the pain of  Rodgers' loss. Even now, he can't really explain it.

"From the day I saw the hearse roll by, it has sat in my heart since then," he said.

Waller was among a couple hundred area residents who lined streets and waived flags as Rodgers' casket was escorted from the Central Illinois Regional Airport to Evergreen Cemetery in Bloomington. Months later, after the retreat to his truck at the construction site, Waller had an epiphany to raise money for a Habitat "Heroes House" in memory of Rodgers.

The idea grew into a plan announced Tuesday to solicit nominations each fall for the "Heroes of Habitat" house-building initiative in which groups or individuals will be recognized for qualities of selflessness, courage, humility, and service to others. The inaugural effort will be done in memory of Rodgers. His name will be on a large stone that will rest in the front yard of the house that'll be constructed at a yet to be publicly identified location.

Unique Fundraising Effort For Habitat

Waller said he needed approval from the umbrella organization for his novel idea.

"This fundraising approach and the way we're making this happen, this is new ground that we're covering. We contacted international (Habitat for Humanity) and they said, 'No, we don't have anything like that,'" according to Waller.

He also needed approval from his boss, Habitat Executive Director Jim Walters, who said it was a simple decision to launch the Heroes of Habitat house-building series.

"The hard part comes in trying to choose just one hero each year. There are so many people in our community who have given selflessly to help others and have made a lasting impact on McLean County, our local affiliate, and our families in need," he said.

Vonda and her husband Kevin were immediately excited.  

"I prayed for a big way to give back to the community, and I'm pretty sure a house is about as big as it gets," said a smiling Vonda Rodgers.

The community has responded in various ways to honor Rodgers since news of the Normal Community High School graduate's death rocked his large circle of friends and extended family.

Embroidered American Flag made from fatigues worn by a U.S. Army Ranger
Credit Colleen Reynolds / WGLT
This flag was made with fatigues worn by Sgt. Josh Rodgers and they have been given to surviving fellow soldiers from the 75th Ranger Regiment.

Normal Community established a scholarship and a sports endowent in his name, and Rodgers was recognized as an American Red Cross of the Heartland Hero. Plans are underway for a special ceremony to dedicate the U.S. Post Office in Uptown Normal for Joshua P. Rodgers, who was on his third tour of duty as a member of an elite special operations unit when he was fatally wounded by what turned out to be friendly fire.

Vonda Rodgers believes the Habitat Hero House is a particularly special effort because it will help a family in need, something she says her son was known for doing. She believes Josh would be excited because 10 percent of money raised will also support building homes in Haiti.

Josh, she suggested, was someone who was all about helping those who could not help themselves.

"He was just an absolutely fierce friend and he would fight for anyone who just couldn't fight for themselves, and I think this is a way we can fight for the people in Haiti." 

A Habitat for Humanity build can only begin once half the total $80,000 cost for construction is raised. But Rodgers predicts the campaign will be wildly successful, possibly providing the foundation for the Heroes of Habitat program for an additional one to two years.

Habitat for Humanity of McLean Countyhas additional information about the Heroes of Habitat house-building effort.

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Colleen has spent most of her adult life working the streets and beats of Bloomington-Normal for WJBC-AM where she won numerous reporting awards for hard news, feature writing, and breaking news coverage.