A warrior's reward: His own accessible home
He wasn't sure what life would hold for him after that June day two years ago when he narrowly escaped death in Iraq.
A counterintelligence specialist, Marine Sgt. Andrew Robinson was trying to track down a terrorist cell in Anbar province when a roadside bomb ripped through his truck, killing three comrades and injuring another.
The blast was so powerful it tore off the front of the vehicle, fractured his legs and ribs, collapsed his lungs, and broke a vertebra that would leave him paralyzed from the chest down.
From his wheelchair later, Robinson said, he wondered, "Can I have a job? Can I go to school? Can I have a family? Can I drive a car? Am I going to be able to eat normal? Can I get dressed?"
Yesterday, amid the din of banging hammers and whining saws, he and his wife, Sara, caught a glimpse of a brighter future as 100 volunteers held an old-fashioned house-raising in Florence.
The workers tomorrow expect to finish the exterior of the couple's dream home: a one-story house adapted to Robinson's needs, with wheelchair-accessible showers, roll-in closets, wide hallways and grade-level doorways.
In two or three months, it will be presented to the Robinsons as a gift from Homes for Our Troops, a Taunton, Mass.-based nonprofit organization that provides specially designed housing for veterans severely wounded during the war on terror.
"When my wife and I heard we would be getting the house, we looked at each other in complete shock," said Robinson, 25, whose parents live in Jacobstown, North Hanover Township. "There's an organization that wants to give us a house? We feel lucky."
The Robinsons' house is one of four such New Jersey projects by Homes for Our Troops, which has completed 28 houses across the country, including three in Pennsylvania. Many others are planned.
The group received $50,000 from the Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund to help complete the Florence home. H.E.A.R.T. 9/11 (Healing Emergency Aid Response Team), a group of veteran New York police officers, firefighters, construction trade union workers and surviving family members of those killed on 9/11, provided about 60 volunteers for the work, which is being coordinated by Kojeski Construction, a Voorhees-based company. Other volunteers and money and material donations also helped.
While the walls of his new house went up, Robinson and his wife could hardly believe how far they had come "after all the ups and downs."
The Marine veteran is now planning to get his driver's license and go to school. He wants to provide psychological counseling services and possibly teach interrogation techniques to law enforcement officers.
"Getting through this takes faith, family and friends," said Robinson, who was prayed over at his hospital bed by President Bush. "Everyone prayed for me - and to see all of them come out today to participate is a whole new feeling. It takes a weight off my shoulders."
The couple's new home is about a mile from where Robinson's wife lived and 20 minutes from his parents' home in Jacobstown, where he grew up.
"The vets don't expect these homes - and they are very grateful when they get them," said Kirt Rebello, vice president and chief projects officer for Homes for Our Troops. "I spent 12 years in the Marines and this is a way to give back. This is one of the greatest parts of my job - seeing a lot accomplished in a short time. It's very rewarding."
The Robinsons' well-kept neighborhood, where signs welcome the injured Marine, American flags fly and a monument honors veterans, is far - in miles and culture - from the dangerous world the sergeant left in Iraq.
On June 20, 2006, he was investigating a group of insurgents who were using roadside bombs against Marines. "They were very successful at it," said Robinson. "My job was to get information about them so we could stop what they were doing.
"While I was doing that, my truck in the convoy was hit by a large roadside bomb built by those guys."
Sara Robinson was asleep at 7 a.m. when the phone rang with news of her husband's injuries.
"I hung up and called his mom and sister. I couldn't cry," she said. "I paced and talked to myself."
Over the following months, she spent time with her husband during his rehabilitation at various hospitals.
"He thought he would never eat sandwiches ever again," said the 23-year-old as she sat in her husband's lap. "His fingers weren't working. That was very disappointing for him. He didn't think he'd be able to do it."
But Andrew Robinson said he "started meeting other guys in wheelchairs with similar injuries to mine. They talked to me about how they go to work. I stopped them and said, 'Hey, how do you get to work?' 'I drive myself.' 'You drive a car?' 'Yeah, I drive a car.' They dressed themselves, went to college and had normal jobs. So that started to help me get along.
"Also, I was seeing guys with worse injuries than mine, guys that couldn't communicate, guys that couldn't walk, couldn't even get out of bed," he said. "They helped me get over my injury and realize there are a lot of things I can still do."
At the suggestion of the Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund, the Robinsons applied for a home at Homes for Our Troops and met Rebello in January.
One of the workers yesterday was a Marine friend, Staff Sgt. Ryan Schaafsma of Seattle, who stayed in contact with Robinson during his recovery and found the house-raising "a perfect way for me to get involved."
Volunteers like Schaafsma helped yesterday "because it was right, not to bring attention to themselves," said Robinson's mother, Carole, 57. "I'm thrilled. I'm a talker but I am speechless. There are no words."