HOLLY RIDGE – Home, sweet home.

A ceremony Thursday concluded with a military family receiving keys to a brand-new home in Holly Ridge. Army specialist Matthew Johnson, his wife Crystal, and son Valin were awarded the mortgage-free house as part of the Homes on the Homefront program, a partnership between Operation Homefront and Wade Jurney Homes. The couple described the experience of seeing their home for the first time as surreal.

“It’s a great opportunity for us to plant roots for him and for him to grow into an awesome little person,” Crystal Johnson said of their 11-year-old son Valin, who will be entering 6th grade.

Spc. Johnson, whose father served in the Marine Corps, has local ties to the area as he was born on Camp Lejeune. Later, the family relocated to Texas and in 2012 he enlisted in the Army. The soldier worked as a generator mechanic when he was injured in 2013 during a pre-deployment training exercise at Fort Carson, Colorado. He suffered a major injury to his head and was diagnosed with traumatic brain injury, according to a press release. In 2015, he was medically-discharged and the family moved to the Houston-area to help his mother who was undergoing treatment for cancer.

Crystal Johnson is among the current generation of military caregivers who are navigating ongoing care for their veteran, while also raising children and managing daily responsibilities. She encourages other caregivers to find a support network.

“I would say surround yourself with people that are going to be positive, that are not going to bring you down and know that there’s always going to be light at the end of the tunnel. It might be hard now, but in the future it will get better,” Johnson said. “I mean, it is a toll and hard to see your loved one go through something so traumatic, and then not know what’s going to happen, but if you surround yourself with positive people it will get you through it, and you’ll be good in the end.”

Margi Kirst, Chief Development Officer of Operation Homefront, says there are a lot of emotions attached to being able to give a family the gift of home ownership, something the organization considers part of the American dream.

“It’s like part pure joy and pure I-can’t-believe-this-is-actually-happening, and then just real gratitude, so it’s a lot of emotion,” Kirst said.

Operation Homefront received over 100 applications in 48 hours for this specific home. A committee reviews the submissions through an extensive vetting process. Once the home is awarded, a caseworker is assigned to train the family on what it means to be a homeowner.

The Johnson family worked with Homes on the Homefront caseworker Andrea Alvarez on getting their financial situation in a healthier place, including reducing debt and increasing savings. She says the followup support Operation Homefront provides is something that sets their housing program apart from others.

“As their case manager, my ultimate goal is to get them setup financially. … If there’s any issue with the house, I kind of troubleshoot with them and make sure it gets addressed,” Alvarez said. “This is the coolest job ever. Not only is it really impacting people’s lives, but I kind of get to see them go through the process. We hold their hand and get them situated because a lot of them (families) have never owned a home.”

Spc. Johnson said the new home is far more than they were expecting. His plan is to pursue an education in political psychology at the University of North Carolina.

Since 2012, Operation Homefront has placed nearly 600 military families into homes, equaling roughly $60 million dollars in home equity. For more information on eligibility and how to apply, visit http://www.homesonthehomefront.org/.