By Preston Williams
George Mason University alumnus Mark Little, a former Army captain, knows service members’ homecomings can be bittersweet. Little came home seven years ago after an improvised explosive device (IED) blasted through his Humvee in southern Baghdad and blew off both of his legs below the knee.
Instead of the long military career he had envisioned, the kid who used to dress up as G.I. Joe for Halloween was forced to retire after one deployment.
Mason alumnus Mark Little and his wife, Alicia, were surprised by the HGTV designers of “Cousins Undercover” on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.” Photo courtesy of “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.”
Known for an infectious positivity that has inspired service members and civilians alike, Little was due for a more joyous kind of homecoming. He and his wife, Alicia, 33, received that triumphant return May 14—this time on national television.
Thanks to the nomination by a friend from George Mason, Little was chosen as the recipient of a home renovation from the Home & Garden Television show “Cousins Undercover,” in conjunction with “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.” The Cousins and DeGeneres were moved by Little’s military sacrifice, his can-do attitude and his continued support of veterans and wounded service members through his Warrior 360 nonprofit organization.
Little graduated in 2006 with a BA in administration of justice, and he and Alicia married three years ago. The couple was told on a recent episode of “Ellen” about the pending renovation of their Fairfax home. During the five days of whirlwind work, they were put up in a nearby hotel with strict orders not to drive past their three-bedroom, three-bathroom rambler for a peek.
More than 250 people showed up for the filming of the Little family renovation unveiling on “Cousins Undercover.” Photo by Evan Cantwell.
When they finally rolled up their street to enter their “new” home, they were greeted by Mason cheerleaders, Spirit Team members and ROTC students lining each side of the driveway. The contingent from Mason was part of a spirited flag-waving throng of about 250 strong. Other spectators, including cheerleaders and representatives from Robinson Secondary School—Little volunteers there—spilled across the street.
Two extra-special surprise guests: Jake Spinks, from Texas, and Clark Madsen, from Missouri. Fellow members of the 3rd Infantry Division, they pulled Little from the Humvee after the IED blast.
Now this was a homecoming befitting a soldier who led almost 200 combat patrols and earned a Bronze Star, two Purple Hearts, two Army Commendation Medals and the Combat Action Badge.
Flanked by the HGTV Cousins, John Colaneri and Anthony Carrino, and “Ellen” correspondent Jeannie Klisiewicz, the couple entered their home to discover a series of surprises and upgrades in the house.
The Cousins and their scores of local volunteers, organized in part by Jennifer Connors, director of Mason’s Office of Military Services, not only improved the home structurally and aesthetically, but they paid attention to the details that would best serve Little.
As a double amputee, Little’s body runs about two degrees higher than most people because he has less skin surface to help regulate his temperature. So the Cousins added two additional air conditioner units and a custom bedside table with a refrigerator so that neither Little nor Alicia would have to get up to replenish Little’s water supply.
The Cousins also added a spa so Little could repair his body after his road races and the USA Warriors ice hockey games he plays with other wounded veterans. The Cousins installed a new seat in the shower; the old one was falling out of the wall.
“Things that are going to make the world of difference for us,” says Little, who had lived in the home for two years while attending Bishop Ireton High School in Alexandria, Va. His plan was to move back into the house after a 20-year career in the service.
“I walked in, and it felt like where we belonged,” Little says. “They really captured our essence and we have a space now that’s comfortable, functional and amazing for us to live in.”
Mason economics major Walter Sweeney, president of the Mason Veterans Society, nominated Little for the home renovation because of his tireless dedication to helping veterans.
“He constantly gives back,” says Sweeney. “Warrior 360 sometimes comes out of his personal bank account to fund people with emergency needs. He’s constantly traveling, constantly on the road, constantly doing stuff, giving himself to others.”
“Mark is the most selfless man you’ll ever meet,” says conflict analysis and resolution major Aaron Coffin, secretary of the Mason veterans group and one of Little’s closest friends. “It’s about time we showed him how much he means to us.”
The Cousins are accustomed to feeling gratified after sprucing up the home of an inspirational citizen in need. But this job might have meant even more than most.
“What Mark has given to his country, to his community, everything that he has done—we said we have to do this for him,” Colaneri says. “Your community in Fairfax—unreal. To even have the outpouring from George Mason University come down and help us out. They said, ‘What do you want us to do? We’re just here to help.’ It’s incredible for us to see that outpouring.”
“Ellen” devoted a segment of her May 16 show to the reveal of the renovation. The hour-long HGTV show will air this summer.
“We don’t pick people to do a home renovation so we can make a fun TV show,” Carrino says. “We’re giving back to somebody who deserves this. Mark exemplifies this to the nth degree.”