Soldier to start new chapter
PULASKI — April will mark the four-year anniversary of Jeremy Austin’s injury.
He remembers his team of Marines leaving the base it was stationed at in Afghanistan’s Helmand province and he said he foggily remembers hearing someone playing a Kelly Clarkson song from an iPod.
An IED exploded.
The next thing he knew, the Marine with a decade of service had lost part of both of his legs and sustained other injuries like a fractured pelvis.
“Before it happened, I always thought of myself as this tough, determined guy,” Austin said. “You don’t know what you’re made of until this happens. You have to dig deep inside yourself.”
Austin returned to the U.S. to undergo amputee rehabilitation at Walter Reed hospital. There, he heard about Homes For Our Troops from other soldiers. He said he and the organization mutually sought one another out for a partnership.
Now another April is approaching. And sometime this spring, Austin, 32, will start a new chapter of his life.
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As Austin walked through the half-finished skeleton of what is becoming his new house on Chicwood Drive in Pulaski last week, he already knew where everything would go.
He gestured to where he’d put in the refrigerator, oven and dishwasher in the kitchen. He had decided which of his sons would get which bedroom. In his mind’s eye, he could see a vegetable garden sprawling across part of the five acre lot out back.
He also knew that he’d be able to bathe his sons, cook breakfast for them and fit through their bedroom doors and all the doorways in the house, even in his wheelchair.
Austin, a double amputee, currently has to wear his prosthetic legs for as long as 18 hours each day because the house his family lives in isn’t very wheelchair-compatible. But when his new home is ready in a few months, the retired veteran will be able to comfortably access all of it, even if he wants to take his prosthetics off for a while.
Austin, who medically retired as a staff sergeant, is one of a handful of injured veterans across the country who will be moving into a new, accessible house in 2013, courtesy of Homes For Our Troops.
The nonprofit was founded in 2004 and identifies veterans who are classified by the Department of Veterans Affairs as being severely wounded, with injuries such as double amputations and paralysis.
Austin along with his wife Crissy and his sons, Dylan, 9, and Colby, 1, currently live in Pulaski, near Austin’s parents. Austin grew up in Statesville, N.C., and his parents moved to Pulaski after he’d joined the Marines and he said he and his wife always loved visiting them in their new home.
“It’ll be pretty amazing to have a house I have total freedom of movement in,” Austin said.
Highlander Construction Company of Radford is building the accessible home. Everything in the home, from the labor to the materials, is being donated to the project. Kenneth Preston, president of Homes For Our Troops, estimated the home is worth about $400,000, including the land it sits on.
James Oliver, Highlander’s president, said his company was happy to work on the home.
“We jumped at the chance,” Oliver said.
Preston, a retired army sergeant major, said the nonprofit contracted to build 30 homes for soldiers in 2012 and had 34 homes contracted to be built in 2013. He said the group had completed 122 homes between 2004 and the end of 2012.
Preston said that out of the roughly 50,000 veterans wounded in combat since September 11, 2001, about 1,600 can be characterized as severely wounded.
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Because of the extra strain prosthetic legs put on his body, Austin knows he’ll likely be able to wear them frequently for about 20 years before becoming more wheelchair-reliant.
“I just want to go as hard as I can now to make memories with my kids,” he said. “When I’m back in the chair, at least I’ll have memories.”
The house is designed to give Austin as much freedom as possible to do just that.
All Homes For Our Troops houses follow a similar floor plan and feature totally ADA accessible modifications like extra-wide doorways with push-open buttons, grab bars on the walls, lower light switches and HVAC controls as well as accessible bathrooms that would allow access for a wheelchair to the shower and toilet and mechanisms to open upper cabinets from the height of a wheelchair. The home will also be EnergyStar certified. Preston said all homes must pass inspection of 165 specific criteria determined by the VA.
During the first weekend of November 2012, an event called a Build Brigade was held, kicking off construction.
Build Brigade is a weekend during the beginning of construction of a Homes For Our Troops house in which volunteers are encouraged to come together to donate time and skills to the construction of the home.
Oliver said more than 50 volunteers gathered during the Build Brigade weekend to raise walls, set trusses and get the house’s framework established.
Since then, Austin said he and his wife have visited the construction site almost every day.
Toward the end of construction of a Homes For Our Troops house, another volunteer day is normally held to landscape the house’s yard.
Then, at the end of the construction, a public key ceremony is held where the family is officially given the keys to their new home.
Preston said one goal of the homes is to improve wounded veterans’ family life while they’re adapting from their injuries. “They can be a contributing member of the family again.” he said.
Furthermore, Preston said the lack of rent or mortgage payments frees veterans financially, which means it’s easier to do things like return to school.
Austin said he and his wife are both interested in returning to school after they get settled in their new home, especially since there’s several options in the area between Virginia Tech, Radford and New River Valley Community College. He never went to college, and his wife attended part of college before joining the Marines.
Austin said he tries to be a positive example of perseverance through his injuries and rehabilitation, for his family and for others.
His attitude was summed up in his own comment: “I mean, here’s this clown with no legs and he’s walking around with a good attitude even though he’s on prosthetics,” he joked.
Austin is looking forward to starting the next chapter of his life in his new home, but he said he has no regrets about the sequence of events that brought him to it.
“People walk up and ask what happened … some people say thank you for your service and others say I’m sorry, and I tell them, don’t be sorry, because I’m not,” Austin said. “I got hurt doing a job I love with people I love like brothers for a country I love… When I joined the Marine Corps in 1999, if I knew what would happen in 2009, I’d still do it.”
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