Home for a hero: After debilitating injury, soldier wants a house that will meet his needs
Army Sgt. Joseph Smith, a career military man, has spent much of his adult life fighting for this nation's freedom.
Now he's fighting for his own.
Six years ago in Afghanistan, during Smith's fourth deployment, the 39-year-old soldier suffered a spinal-cord injury that left him paralyzed from the waist down when a pair of Afghan locals - angry at Smith for confiscating their camera when they were taking unauthorized photos - retaliated by dropping a 450-pound storage locker on top of him as he entered a storage facility. In addition to warping his spinal cord, the blow crushed Smith's left leg, caused a traumatic brain injury and nearly killed him.
"The locker covered his whole body, except for his boots - that was the only way the troops knew he was under there," says Smith's wife, Debbi. "They found him about 45 minutes later and lifted it off of him."
Smith, who grew up in Virginia, spent the next four years in hospitals and rehab centers, determined to mend and strengthen his broken body. The paralysis still requires Smith to use a wheelchair, but he's now able to take a few steps on a walker or with assistance - something doctors had said would be impossible. Last fall, he completed the grueling Marine Corps Marathon on a handcycle, climbing the final hill to the finish line on a flat tire.
Meanwhile, Joey (as he likes to be called) met the former Debbi Oldaugh - who grew up in High Point - and they clicked. The couple got married in August 2009, and they have a home in Shelby. Three children from previous marriages live with them.
What's missing in Joey's life is his independence. Because his home is not handicap-accessible, he cannot easily navigate his way through the house in his wheelchair, and he needs help with such necessities as using the bathroom, taking a bath and getting into bed.
Not surprisingly, for a hardcore military man such as Joey - 15 years in the Army, six years in the Marines - asking for help does not come easy.
"Being restricted on my independence," he says softly, "has made me feel like less of a man."
That's where Homes For Our Troops, a nonprofit agency based in Taunton, Mass., enters the picture. The organization recently purchased an acre of land in Randolph County, just inside the Davidson County line, on which it plans to build a handicap-accessible home for the Smith family.
"We build specially adapted homes for severely injured veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan," explains Tom Benoit, vice president and chief financial officer of Homes For Our Troops. "...We've completed over 50 houses (since the agency's founding in 2004), and we have about 40 more going on across the country right now."
Joey will be the seventh North Carolina veteran to receive a home from the organization.
Homes For Our Troops evaluates applications from veterans, accepting those who have incurred "a certain severity of injury" in a combat theater of operations since 9/11, according to Benoit.
Once a veteran has been accepted, the agency begins looking for a suitable tract of land on which to build, as well as a general contractor and tradespeople willing to donate their services for the construction project.
In Joey's case, he and Debbi requested their home be built in Randolph County, so they could be closer to Debbi's family. The agency put out a request for a general contractor willing to take on the project, and Scott Beane of Beane Construction in Trinity answered the call.
"My father served in the military from 1966 to '75, and those guys are over there fighting for our freedom," Beane says, "so the least I can do is help build a home for this disabled veteran that will be handicap-accessible."
Beane helped the Smiths find a suitable lot, which Homes For Our Troops has now purchased. Construction will begin soon, and Beane needs volunteer tradespeople - everything from electrical and plumbing contractors to roofers and companies that can donate building supplies.
The idea, Benoit says, is to build the home at no cost to the veteran.
"The VA (Veterans Affairs) has a grant program for specially adapted homes, but it caps at about $64,000," he says. "For someone who needs to build an entire home, that doesn't get you there. We cover the cost over and above the grant, so the veteran gets a home with no mortgage."
No timetable has been set for building the Smiths' home, but construction will begin with a "build brigade," a three-day building blitz designed to get the frame of the house built - walls, siding, roof, doors and windows - so the rest of the work can be done without hindrance from the elements.
"The build brigade is open to the public, and it's pretty exciting," Benoit says. "It's like ‘Extreme Home Makeover' in three days, but of course we don't get the whole house done in three days."
Beane hopes the Smiths will be able to move in before Christmas.
The new home will be a blessing to the Smiths, whose 1,300-square-foot home in Shelby is nice, but not handicap-accessible.
"Our living room is really small, and for Joey to get in the living room and into the kitchen, I have to move the furniture in a little square to make room for his wheelchair," Debbi says. "The doorways are not wide enough for his chair unless I push him through; otherwise, he smacks his knuckles off. He can't get in and out of the bathtub by himself, and it's the same thing with the commode. We have one ramp that comes into our house from the garage, so God forbid if there's ever a fire in the garage - I'd have to carry him out."
The new home will give Joey his independence and dignity, and it has filled him and Debbi with gratitude.
"The people that donate and volunteer ... we just can't say thanks enough to them and tell them what it means, because it shows us that the American public does care about our soldiers," Debbi says.
"Regardless of their stance on the war, they care about these guys and gals that come back and who do have life-changing injuries, and it makes you feel like you didn't do this in vain."
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