What began in early December 2012 with a Build Brigade is now complete. The community united once again Saturday to honor Marine Staff Sgt. Jeremy Austin and his family, and to mark a very special occasion: the dedication of their new home, recently completed by area builders and the national charity, Homes for Our Troops (HFOT).
Shortly before 11 a.m., an excited group of well-wishers gathered outside the home. The faces in the crowd represented many ages and backgrounds, from military veterans to young volunteers, some of whom have seen this project through from its beginning last December.
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 Corps veteran, along with their two sons, Dylan and Colby, have relocated to Pulaski to be near Austin’s family. HFOT has helped provide the family with a fully accessible, adapted house to fit their needs.
The Austins were escorted by members of the Patriot Guard Riders, Pulaski County Sheriff’s Office, Pulaski Police and Fire, and Rolling Thunder. Upon arrival at the house, Staff Sgt. Austin participated in a brief ceremony to raise the American flag and mark the beginning of the dedication, which included remarks from a representative of Nick Rush, who presented the Austins with a Virginia flag to fly over the home, as well as comments from a friend, the president of HFOT and Jeremy Austin himself.
Pulaski Mayor Jeff Worrell delivered a word of welcome and gratitude to Jeremy, thanking him for his dedicated service and for bearing the burden of our country’s freedom.
“Staff Sgt. Austin has paid that burden, met that hardship and opposed those foes, all at an enormous cost,” said Worrell. “The only thing not broken was his spirit. That indomitable American spirit that exists in men like Staff Sgt. Jeremy Austin. It’s that spirit that allows us to celebrate here this day. As we drive around the countryside in the next few weeks and enjoy the spectacular fall foliage, which we take for granted, may we pause and give thanks for brave men and women like Staff Sgt. Jeremy Austin – those brave souls, whose courage allows the rest of us to enjoy the many blessings of this great country. Staff Sgt. Austin, may you find peace, comfort and joy in your beautiful new home in this beautiful place. You, sir, deserve a long rest. And on behalf of the citizens of the town of Pulaski, I thank you, sir, for your service to your country and to all of us who live here.”
Bunk Austin, a friend of the family and fellow member of the Marine Corps League, shared his sentiments about the flag, patriotism, and the character Jeremy Austin showed through personal sacrifice for his country. He recited a poem and closed his remarks with a few final words to Jeremy.
“We honor America by serving it,” said Bunk Austin. “You honor all Americans by serving it well. Jeremy, thank you.”
Tim McHale, president of HFOT, addressed the gathering next. Through his remarks, McHale reminded those in attendance that this home was only one in a long list of homes needed to repay wounded service members for their courage and selflessness.
“We’re here today to honor Staff Sgt. Jeremy Austin and his family, Crissy and the boys,” said McHale. “They’re something very important and you are all part of it. Homes for Our Troops is not just a small organization of 43 people out at Taunton, Mass. You are Homes for Our Troops. We’re here today to give away a house on behalf of all of you. On behalf of America, I want to state up front, we do not see this as charity; we see this as the moral obligation of our society.”
The Austins’ home is the 140th home HFOT has completed in the four years since the charity was founded in 2004. McHale said there are about six such homes in Virginia. It was built with 155 special adaptive features to give Jeremy the freedom and independence he needs around the home, like wider doors and hallways, special appliances, a roll-in shower, accessible cabinets and many more. McHale went on to thank the community for supporting the project and making a difference in the young family’s life.
“You know in this next year they’ll talk in Washington and they’ll say – they’re already talking about it in Iraq and they’ll say it about Afghanistan – ‘it’s in our rearview mirror,’” said McHale. “Guess what? It’ll never be in Jeremy’s rearview mirror, or his family’s. So these are the kind of things we pull together as Americans to make happen to honor our true heroes that have made a difference. We have a lot of things going on here in the world, but taking time and paying respect for those men and women that have served so bravely is something very important, and thank you for your very patriotic support.”
Jeremy Austin took the microphone next, expressing his disbelief that this day had finally arrived, along with giving thanks for all that has been done for him through the process.
“We’re finally at this point,” he said. “It’s still very surreal for me, as well as for my wife and our sons. I keep kind of pinching myself and thinking it’s just a dream and it’s just amazing.”
As Staff Sgt. Austin addressed the audience, he quoted a passage from the book, “Gates of Fire,” by Steven Pressfield, saying: “They have schooled us to scorn the life of leisure, which this rich land of ours would bestow upon us if we wished, and instead to enroll ourselves in the academy of discipline and sacrifice. Guided by these laws, our fathers for 20 generations have breathed the blessed air of freedom and have paid the bill in full when it was presented. We, their sons, can do no less.”
“I said it at the Build Brigade, if I knew what was going to happen April 11, 2009 when I stepped on those footprints March 31, 1999 at Parris Island, I wouldn’t change a thing,” said Staff Sgt. Austin. “I don’t know very many guys that would change anything in their life, especially when you’ve been in the places that some of us have been in.”
The dedication was followed by the cutting of a yellow ribbon, performed by the Austins’ oldest son Dylan, and then the family entered the new home to the sound of cheers and applause.
“I can’t say enough about Homes for Our Troops and how important their mission is and how critical it is to helping our wounded veterans,” said Jamie Oliver, president of Highlander Construction, lead contractor on the project. “These guys and gals sacrifice so much on our behalf and to be able to have the opportunity to give a little something back is important to me and important to our company. We’re super excited for the Austins to be moving into this house and making it a home.”
Oliver extended thanks to all those businesses and people in the area that lent a hand to the project in one way or another, saying how important it was to Highlander Construction to have their help in making this dream a reality for the Austins.
Crissy Austin commented later that she will always remember the generous support of the community, for which she is thankful.
“It still feels so surreal and overwhelming, with the outpouring of love and help the community has given us,” she said. “There were a couple of times we came to the lot and random people would pull in and offer to help and do whatever they could with the house.”
Jeremy Austin reiterated some of his wife’s feelings and also spoke about what it means to them to have a house that is theirs instead of renting as they always have in the past.
“We’ve never owned a house,” he said. “In the Marine Corps we rented a house, and we’re renting a house now while we were waiting on this house to be completed, so to be able to just have a house that is ours … that if, for whatever reason, we want to change paint colors, we don’t have to check with anybody, just pick a color and go for it. So it’s not only just freedom of movement in the house, but freedom of decision with the home. It’s a big responsibility, but we’re up for it. It’s good. It’s a good responsibility.”
Remembering the people who have gone out of their way to help with building the house and making them feel welcome in the area, Austin once again expressed heartfelt gratitude for the show of support.
“I would like to thank everybody in the community from the bottom of my heart. It speaks volumes to the amount of patriotism that we as a country have, and even more so, we as a community. As this community continues to take my family and me in with open arms, we’re only going to continue to build deeper and longer-lasting relationships with folks in the community, and I know that’s something that my wife and I both look forward to very much.”