WOODBRIDGE, Va. --
As three-year-old Joey Carpenter peddled his tricycle over crackling autumn leaves on the driveway, his mother smiled through stifled tears, for she knew her son would now have a stable home in which to grow up.
Neighbors watched as the Department of Veterans Affairs saluted Elizabeth Carpenter, the 20 millionth recipient of its Home Loan Guarantee Program, in a ceremony just outside the door of her new address here.
Veterans Affairs Under Secretary for Benefits Allison A. Hickey presented a plaque to Joey and Elizabeth, his mother, the widow of Army Capt. Matthew Carpenter, a West Point graduate and Iraq war veteran who succumbed to cancer in December 2010.
No matter the circumstances that cause military families to want a new home, the VA Home Loan Program, Hickey said, is just a good idea.
"Vets are a good bet; service members are a good bet," she said. "Because they have those core values of responsibility and dependability and [do] what they commit to do, [whether] they sign up to own a home ... or go to war."
Carpenter said that she knew she wanted to be in Virginia with her family once her husband passed away.
"I wanted my son to have the stability of a home with me and him -- this is our new little family," Carpenter said. "I wanted a home where he could have the memories at 3 when he's 16 years old and this is a stable good place for him to come back to however old he is."
She added that her familiarity with the VA Home Loan Program stemmed from her father, an Army soldier, and later by way of her own VA benefit purchase with her late husband on their home in Connecticut.
But she soon learned of the benefits VA extends not only to active duty military families, but surviving spouses as well.
According to Mike Frueh, Veterans Benefits Administration director of loan guaranty services, since Capt. Miles Myers took out the first VA home loan on Nov. 1, 1944 in Washington D.C., VA has worked successfully with industry partners, realtors, lenders and servicers to fulfill the nation's promise to veterans and their families.
This year alone, the VA has guaranteed more than 2,400 loans every day of the year, Frueh added.
Hickey noted the VA home loan program's long history and its positive service for the nation's veterans.
"Every year for the last three, we have kept 73,000 service members, veterans and their family members under roof when they've had hard times," she said. "Our partners in the mortgage industry have worked with us to restructure those loans as necessary to ensure they stay under roof with their families."
The VA, she continued, does not directly fund loans, but remains the largest no-down payment program in the nation, with 89 percent of loans fitting the no-down payment description the result of partnerships with more than 1,500 banks and loan originators.
"The program is a critical component of this nation's mortgage industry," Hickey said. "For the last 18 quarters, VA is the lowest seriously delinquent mortgage program in the nation."
Carpenter said she hopes her story will reassure other people in similar circumstances who think their dream of home ownership may be out of reach.
"There are so many benefits through the VA for active duty families," she added, "but there are also so many benefits for surviving family members and surviving spouses that I didn't even know existed until my husband got sick."
Joey, Carpenter added, also approves of his new home and took to it with as much zeal as his mom.
"I walked in and I knew -- pulling up into the cul de sac and walking in the door here ... this felt like a home that Joey and I could start pushing forward with the rest of lives in," she said.
Carpenter also said the VA has helped make her transition as smooth as possible, even after the "shock" of learning she was the 20 millionth VA loan recipient.
"Without the VA this wouldn't be possible," Carpenter said. "We're very lucky to be here in this home and excited to take this step and push forward to honor Matt the way he would want us to."
As for the preceding 19,999,999 VA home loan recipients, Carpenter also shared her thoughts.
"They've paved the way for all of us now, even my parents so that people in my situation or other young military families can get into a home loan and have some stability [when] you never know where you're going or how long you're going to be there," Carpenter said. "It provides us the American dream to own a house."