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"This is our forever house," says Vanessa. "We've been dreaming about it for a long time. But this exceeds our dreams. It feels like a miracle."
Every house built by Homes for Our Troops is given free of charge. "So instead of sweating a mortgage I can play more golf!" Jake says. His handicap is down to 16.8, and last year he holed a five-iron shot from 185 yards for his first eagle. Jake acquitted himself nicely playing in the pro-am at the 2012 Northern Trust Open, which was merely the latest adventure in an action-packed life. Through a veterans' organization called Project Healing Waters he has fly-fished in Canada, Chile and Belize. He won a silver medal in wheelchair basketball at the first Warrior Games in 2010. Jake likes to roar through the hills in his neighborhood on a customized chopper, and he can still tear up a mountain on his monoski.
"Jake getting hurt forced both of us to do a lot of soul work, a lot of spirit work," says Vanessa. "It's turned him into a beautiful, compassionate person."
Jake and Vanessa have often ruminated on life's larger meaning since he was "blown up," to use his preferred phrase. These days the conversations usually take place when they're relaxing in their new backyard, palm trees swaying overhead, Palomar Mountain visible in the distance. There is a soothing trickle from the multitiered swimming pool they recently put in with a chunk of their life savings. The house that Mickelson helped fund has become a sanctuary. Jake and Vanessa have a favorite expression reserved for these tranquil moments, when the blast of a roadside bomb feels very far away: "This does not suck."
New Orleans is more than a city, it's an idea. Helen Gillet arrived 10 years ago, at 23, with only her cello and the romantic notion that the Big Easy would be a beautiful place to struggle as an artist. "New Orleans represented so many things to me: music, culture, freedom," she says. Helen didn't know a soul, but she had her talent and ambition and an instrument she had always leaned on.
She was born to an American mother in Belgium, her father's homeland. He was a successful banker, and Helen led what she calls a "very, very privileged childhood." She took up the cello at nine, while living in Singapore and attending a French-language school carved out of the jungle. When she was 12 her father fell ill, and the family fell on hard times. Her parents divorced, and Helen moved with her mom and brother to Libertyville, Ill. They were suddenly living hand-to-mouth in the conservative Chicago suburb, and the culture shock was jarring. "The cello was my escape," she says. "It was my foundation."
After graduating from Beloit College in Wisconsin, she couldn't resist the siren song of New Orleans. She instantly felt at home—the air was alive with French, her native tongue, and the steamy climate reminded her of Singapore. Helen papered the city with flyers advertising her musical talents. She took any gig she could find, sometimes making as little as six bucks in tips. She survived thanks to the bulk foods gifted by her aunt, who worked for a company that supplied prisons. When she booked a wedding for the princely fee of $50, she celebrated with a salad and an avocado that she says "was better than the finest caviar." She lived in unusual conditions, including an "artist's colony" that was basically 20 kids squatting in a warehouse.
"I was barely making enough money to get by, but New Orleans was really good to me," she says. "It was so inspiring to be surrounded by the endless creativity and wealth of talent. It's such an open musical community; if you're willing to make a fool of yourself, you can sit in with any band in town." She learned to blend her classical training with elements of jazz, the blues and even punk rock.
In the summer of 2005 Helen made the long drive to Quebec to visit family, bringing along her cello and her cat, Lilly (named for Hurricane Lili, which they lived through a few months after arriving in New Orleans). While she was 1,500 miles away another hurricane hit. "Watching the Katrina coverage on TV, the emotions were so powerful," she says. "That was my city."