After longing for years for a place to call home, Sheryl and Eric Began finally got their wish.
The Camden County couple received the keys Thursday to their first home - mortgage-free, realizing a dream the couple thought they could not afford for years to come.
"It's not quite real yet. It'll hit later," Eric Began said during an interview in the living room of their three-bedroom home on a quiet cul-da-sac. "It's called winning the lottery."
Operation Homefront awarded the bungalow in Sicklerville to the couple under a national program that provides homes to military families. Eric Began, 32, a former Air Force sergeant, was deployed twice to Iraq and once to Afghanistan.
Began was honorably discharged in 2009 and suffers from post-traumatic stress. He plans to become a nurse.
The bank-owned property was donated by JP Morgan Chase as part of its "Community Give Back" program, said Steve Caputo, a vice president for insurance relations. The company has about 1,000 homes available in its portfolio, he said.
The 1,300-square-foot Cape-style house was listed on Zillow as a foreclosure property valued at $131,000. It was spruced up, and new carpet and appliances were installed. An American flag was flying from the front of the home, which sits on a large lot with a sprawling fenced backyard.
"Anyone who gives their time to the military . . . we owe a debt to them," Caputo said. "To give a mortgage-free home is a small thing to do."
According to Operation Homefront, 1.5 million veteran households pay more than half their income for housing. Post-9/11 veterans are more likely than veterans of previous eras to experience severe housing-cost problems, the group said.
Caputo left the couple a chocolate frosted cake in the refrigerator. Bob DePersia, a neighbor who stopped by to check out the commotion, brought a box of chocolates.
"It's the least I can do," said DePersia, also a veteran. "Thank you very much for your service."
A native of Lancaster, Eric Began enlisted in the Air Force in 2003, and rose to the rank of staff sergeant. During his military career, he was a vehicle operator, dispatcher, gunner driver, and convoy operations member. He plans to begin studying nursing in April at Drexel University. While deployed, he helped patch up injured soldiers. "I just like taking care of people," he said.
Began said he and his wife, married for about 18 months, would not have been able to afford a home for several years. The couple has been living nearby in a crowded one-bedroom apartment with their dog, Rusty, a 60-pound Labrador mixed breed, and cat, Busta Rhymes.
The couple plan to move in this weekend and hope to begin a family soon. Sheryl Began said she was eager to put personal touches on the house.
"We're just in shock as to how lucky we are to have this," said Sheryl Began, 25, an eighth-grade teacher at Pittsgrove Middle School in Salem County. "We're just totally overwhelmed with gratitude."
Based in San Antonio, Texas, Operation Homefront has awarded about 550 homes to veterans since the program was started in 2012. This is the fourth awarded in New Jersey. Previously, homes were awarded in Gloucester, Mount Laurel, and Woodbine.
The Begans will receive the deed to the house in two years, after fulfilling program requirements, said Madison Dillon, an Operation Homefront spokeswoman. They must undergo financial counseling and become active in their neighborhood and will be responsible for paying the property taxes and upkeep, she said.
"This will be our place to put down roots," Sheryl Began said.