Group seeks to build home for soldier who lost legs
The kitchen. To this soldier, a cook at heart, it's the most frustrating room. He can't reach the stove from his wheelchair.
"It's too high. I'll catch my arms on fire," said Reas Axtell, matter-of-factly.
In August, a rocket blast in Iraq blew the specialist's legs to pieces. Doctors amputated them soon after the blast, leaving only the soldier's torso intact. Axtell, a native of the Lubbock area, has spent the bulk of the last year in military hospitals, learning how to live without legs and hip bones.
In most American homes, economic worries have eclipsed the concerns of Middle East wars, news polls show. In Axtell's home and another connected to it, the impact of war is inseparable from daily life.
As the soldier nears the end of his military career, a nonprofit group is trying to build a home for him and his family in the civilian world. Meanwhile, his father-in-law - whom Axtell inspired to action - is getting used to life as an Army reservist.
Tied to war
It's uncanny how the Iraq war has again and again shaken Axtell's family.
On Aug. 28, 2007, a small rocket was lobbed onto the base in Kirkuk where Axtell was serving with the 977th military police company.
Axtell, now 25, had gone to pick up mail for his squadron and had just opened a door to the mailroom when the rocket hit 4 to 10 feet behind him, he said.
His legs shattered as he was slammed against the mailroom door.
That same day on a military base in Kansas, Axtell's wife, Sarah, was preparing lunch - pancakes at the request of her daughter, Kyra, now 3, and her son, Drake, now 2 - when she heard a knock on the door. A sergeant had come to tell her what had happened to her husband.
Two days shy of the month anniversary of her husband's injuries, Sarah learned one her best friends from high school, Randell Olguin, an Army sergeant from Ralls, had been killed as he patrolled Baghdad on foot.
Now, the family has to cope with her father, Cliff's, decision to join the Army Reserves. Cliff Boling, 48, was so moved by his son-in-law's and other young soldiers' sacrifices, he joined the Reserves in May, even though the decision might send him to the country that nearly claimed the life of his daughter's husband.
"The situation (in Iraq) is all around us," said Boling, who left his career as an artillery officer in the New Mexico Army National Guard in 1992 and has been working as a paramedic in the Lubbock region for 11 years.
"I decided my skills (as a medic) would be better used getting our kids home in one piece," Boling said. Since Reas has returned from Iraq, Boling has seen more than one of his 19-year-old daughter's friends leave to take his place.
He doesn't like to dwell on his decision, especially at such a critical, transitional time for his daughter and son-in-law.
"It's just kind of incidental, what I'm doing," he said.
In the beginning, his wife, Leesa, admits his return to the military was hard to accept, especially because the couple still has three children, 19, 17, and 13, living at home. When she questions it now, she simply thinks of Reas and other soldiers like him, she said.
"I'm proud of him," Leesa said. "He wants to help."
A home for the Axtells
By the time winter sets in, Pfc. Donald Reas Axtell III will again be part of the civilian world.
He's excited to begin a new life after about two years of service. If he stayed in the Army, it would be behind a desk. That he couldn't stomach.
He's come far since August. His family says his upbeat attitude has helped. He gives them credit for what he and they describe as a relatively seamless recovery.
He's not only learned how to use his wheelchair, he can do tricks on it, balancing on its back wheels, popping up over curbs. He's also learned to stand on a pair of metal, prosthetic legs, though he prefers his wheelchair.
"I'm happy with just being able to stand. Mobility will be a lot harder to do with my type of amputation," he said.
One big unknown remains for the Axtells, though. Once the specialist leaves the military, the family won't have a home to call their own. They're now living in a house at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, where Reas is finishing up rehab at the Center for the Intrepid.
A fairly new nonprofit, Homes For Our Troops, will build a home for the Axtells in Idalou, if others donate enough resources, the Axtells and Bolings said.
A home builder, John Gonsalves, founded Homes For Our Troops in 2004 after seeing Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in need of housing. The Massachusetts-based organization has built about 32 homes for troops severely injured in Iraq or Afghanistan. Two are in Texas. About 20 more are in various stages of construction, said Tom Benoit, the nonprofit's chief financial officer.
People can donate materials, money, time or labor to build the Axtell house at a yet-to-be found spot in Idalou.
"People out there want to help. ... We allow them to do something really tangible to show they support these men and women who went overseas to defend our country," Benoit said.
Many people don't realize how difficult the transition from military to civilian life can be, Benoit said. Some ex-troops live in trailers or with their parents because the cost of living and housing is so high, he said.
For injured veterans, the transition can be even more challenging.
"It's the basic things you don't think about that become hard to do: Turn on your lights. Open your door. Get out of bed. Cook your own meals," Benoit said.
Homes For Our Troops addresses that, too, building wheelchair ramps and other features into its homes for veterans with amputated limbs. They've even installed stoves that veterans in wheelchairs can roll under for cooking, Benoit said.
Reas and his family say he's overcome the physical hurdles associated with amputation. He's focused on the future.
Once he and his family find a home, Reas wants to pursue culinary education in the Lubbock area and eventually open his own family restaurant near home.
"I can't wait," he said.