Nonprofit Spotlight: United States Veteran Corps

Legna Aponte, center, wearing a black mask, and her two sons celebrate during the Operation: Coming Home ceremony Nov. 11, 2020, in Wendell. Volunteers from USVC built the family a home after her husband, Sgt. 1st Class Elis Barreto Ortiz, was killed in action.

When Legna Aponte’s husband, paratrooper Elis Barreto Ortiz, was killed in action in Afghanistan in 2019, she felt alone. The burden of grief was amplified by worry about how she would care for her two young sons, then 11 and 4.

“I didn’t have any family in North Carolina. We were starting from zero,” she said.

That is when she called Andrew Ladner, founder and president of the United States Veteran Corps (USVC), a Cary nonprofit with a mission to help veterans and their families.

“When I first reached out, I just wanted to know about the program. I was a new widow, I didn’t trust anyone,” she said.

Within months of that call, Aponte learned her family would receive a new home compliments of “Operation: Coming Home,” the USVC mission to provide custom-built houses for troops injured in combat and Gold Star families.

“I was in shock,” Aponte said. “It’s one of the great experiences of my life.”

Andrew Ladner

While it’s hard to imagine something greater than a mortgage-free home, Aponte says the true gift of the USVC is much bigger. “They keep showing up. They know what happened with my husband, and they want to show up for him.”

It is a sentiment often echoed about the USVC; they keep showing up.

When many community agencies shut down due to COVID-19, the USVC stepped in. For 64 weeks, they took their regular veteran food delivery program, “Feed a Hero Friday,” and transformed it to “Food Run Friday.”

Without warning or preparation, in addition to their normal service, they committed their trailers, their trucks and their volunteers to coordinate the donations and deliver thousands of pounds of food when no one else could.

Overcoming improbable odds is nothing new to the USVC.

With a smile on his face, Ladner shares the David and Goliath story about the first time his group won “Best Community Spirit in the Nation” from the National Association of Home Builders in 2009.

It was an award that “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” the well-funded ABC television show, was accustomed to winning. The team was seated in the front row of an audience of more than 1,000 people, expecting to win again.

Meanwhile, Ladner was at the very last table, able to touch the back wall. The announcement came: “The winner is… Operation Coming Home from Raleigh, North…Dakota.”

Volunteers with USVC load boxes of food on trucks to be delivered to hungry families during one of the nonprofit’s Food Run Fridays, an effort that lasted 64 weeks during the COVID pandemic.

“We were unsure we won, because they said North Dakota. The winners are always from New York or California, so there was some confusion in the room,” Ladner said, with a laugh.

They went on to win the top prize six more times. In addition to that, the USVC has received three Presidential Volunteer Awards, recognition from Congress and two Guinness World Records, one for most food collected at a food drive, and another for the largest toy drive.

“You see all the awards, but what is moving to me is to see the face of a mom whose husband is deployed, and she worries about Christmas,” said volunteer Kelly Pontrelli. “Then they see Santa parachute out of a plane (at USVC’s Operation Toy Drop), and they get to pick gifts. For a moment, that eases the burden and brings pure joy.”

Pontrelli adds that she loves the constant behind-the-scenes work.

“The camaraderie is huge. We partner continuously with numerous organizations who care,” she said. “I’m just so grateful that I get to be part of an organization that is making an impact and bringing people hope.”

Camaraderie is what laid the foundation for USVC. While stationed at Fort Bragg, Ladner and nine fellow paratroopers were deployed after Hurricane Andrew to rebuild homes.

Years later, Ladner was working with the Home Builders Association of Raleigh-Wake County when Hurricane Katrina struck. The NAHB called for volunteers for an ambitious after-the-storm episode of “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.”

Toys are collected during USVC’s Operation Toy Drop. During the holidays, toys are distributed to low income and deployed troops.

Ladner stepped up, and he knew just the guys to help him out.

After three years of builds teamed with “Extreme Makeover,” Ladner and his ‘black shirt’ veterans broke out on their own. In 2009, they completed their first home independently as Operation: Coming Home. And they didn’t stop there.

In addition to providing homes, food and toys to military families, USVC missions include a Rescue Response Team and Tactical Caisson Unit.

The response team provides aid to areas impacted by natural disasters and responds to other emergencies. They recently provided flood relief to western North Carolina and aid to states impacted by Hurricane Ida. The Tactical Caisson Unit provides funeral honors and dignified transportation for fallen U.S. Military and First Responder veterans.

“They do so much more than they even say, or post,” said Aponte, who recently went skydiving, thanks to the USVC. “My husband was 82nd and always wanted me to try it. I jumped with my husband’s dog tags, and I could feel him with me.

“[The USVC] are my family in North Carolina now. They are people with big hearts. They want to help because they are selfless and humble, and I don’t even know how to find the right word for them because they are amazing.”

To learn more or to see how you can join the mission, visit

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