By TRAVIS HANDY
“We’ve heard the phrase ‘hurry up and wait,’ well Staff Sergeant, your wait is over. We’re here to build your house this weekend,” said Larry Gill, veteran liaison with Homes for Our Troops (HFOT).
Those were the opening comments as the Build Brigade gathered to erect a new home for Marine SSgt. Jeremy Austin and his family this weekend on Chickwood Drive in Pulaski.
A crowd of between 100 and 200 people, including construction teams, supporters and volunteers showed up on a frosty November morning to mark the occasion and help raise the first wall in the opening ceremony of the weekend-long Build Brigade to provide the Austins with a fully accessible home.
Austin lost both of his legs in an improvised explosive device (IED) attack during his fifth deployment to Afghanistan in April 2009. Since his recovery, Austin and his wife, Crissy, also a Marine, along with their two sons, Dylan and Colby, have relocated to Pulaski to be near Austin’s family.
Army Sgt. Marco Robledo, another wounded veteran who received a home in Arkansas from the organization in May, made comments about what HFOT means to him. He travels around the country as an ambassador to HFOT sharing his experience and the difference his home has made in his life. He lost an arm and a leg in Iraq in 2007.
“I was fortunate enough to receive a home,” said Robledo. “What the home means to me is a sense of liberty, independence, a piece of normality and something that I can call my own. Like Jeremy knows, you spend the rest of your days fighting your struggles. It’s a disability but it only haunts you as much as you allow it to.”
Robledo explained that the houses provide lower cabinets and counter tops, wider doors and hallways and easier access so wounded vets can live life to its fullest.
“When I read his bio and I read that he’s been deployed five times … I can’t think of a man that deserves a home more than (Jeremy) does. Jeremy, you served your nation proudly, you’ve served the community. It’s time for them to give something back,” Robledo said, to cheers and applause from the crowd.
Austin was last to address the group of volunteers and supporters gathered on Friday. His heartfelt comments were brief, but illustrated his feelings about his service to our country and just how much the HFOT project means to him and his family.
“It’s a pretty humbling experience, because you don’t really want a lot of recognition for the things that you do,” said Austin. “It’s part of the job when you sign on for it, and you know that the possibility is always there, every time you deploy, every time you leave the wire, every time you lock and load that M4. … I’ve said it time and time again, and my wife would attest to it, you know when I joined the Marine Corps in 1999, if I had known what was going to happen, I would have still done it. No questions asked. I have no regrets with my life.
“I want you all to know, everybody that’s here to support me and my family, to support getting this home done so that we can raise these two beautiful boys together and maybe a little girl at some point … we’ll see what happens,” Austin continued. “But it’s going to truly mean a lot for Crissy and I to have a place to call our own, for her not to have to worry about me being in prosthetics all the time, getting around. That I’ll have … ease of movement throughout the house. It’s going to be a bad day if I bump into a wall, because there ain’t going to be a reason for me to.
“I really appreciate all of you guys coming out. I thank you all that made the drive to get here. I greatly appreciate it. So, with that said, let’s kick the tires and light the fires,” Austin said to a final round of applause from the excited group.
Highlander Construction and Development of Radford has taken the lead as general contractor on much of the construction at the site of the new home, along with help from Eagle Construction, who provided framing services. Area businesses offering goods or services were 84 Lumber, Ferguson, RL Phipps, Holston River Quarry, Rome Mechanical, Shelter Alternatives, United Framing, Sundown Electric, Conrock, Bug Man and Balzer Associates, Creative Conservation, Horizon Management, Gay & Neel and many more.
James Oliver, president of Highlander Construction, said there was no hesitation to pitch in when he heard about the project to build Austin’s home.
“We jumped at the chance to do it, and we would do it again,” said Oliver. “The fact of the matter is we’ve told the charity that if there are other veterans in the area that need a house, that we’d be glad to do it again.”
Oliver said the support from throughout the New River Valley has been incredible.
“So many of the trades, subcontractors and vendors that we have worked with over 20 years in business have stepped up to provide materials and labor,” said Oliver. “Everybody has really embraced the project. We’ve been very fortunate that so many of our business partners over the years have stepped up to give a little something back, which is really what this is all about. (SSgt.) Austin gave something for us, and we’re giving something for him.”
The Austins participated in raising the first wall in a photo opportunity placing them on what will be the threshold of their new home. With the first wall up, it was time for the volunteers to get to work.
Dozens of volunteers were on site, including some of Austin’s family members and family friends, who responded with their feelings about the project.
“It means the world to me,” said Austin’s uncle, Tim Travis. “He’s my hero.”
Travis recalled hearing the news of Austin’s injury and how grateful he was that he was alive, while at the same time being devastated that he had lost his legs. He was elated to be able to contribute to the effort to build the Austins’ home.
“I’ve just been looking for an opportunity to give back to him what he has done for me,” said Travis. “I just can’t thank everybody enough for helping my nephew, and just for giving back to the community or give back to the troops who put their lives on the line for us every day, day in, day out. I can’t thank them enough.”
By midday Friday, the exterior walls had gone up at the building site and the team was set to wrap the exterior and begin working on the interior. The goal for the weekend Build Brigade is to complete the exterior and interior walls, install roof trusses and begin work on the roof. The interior work will be finished in the coming weeks. The Southwest Times will continue to follow up on the progress.