CLARKSVILLE, Tenn., Sept. 16, 2011 -- On the eve of the 10th anniversary of 9/11, Soldiers, Family members and civilians gathered along the picturesque McGregor Park Riverwalk, filled with the sights and sounds of the city's annual Riverfest.

They were gathered for one reason -- to celebrate the completion of Operation Hero's Wish, a Jeep rebuild project spearheaded by Staff Sgt. Jason Axelson. The Fort Campbell Soldier began the project this summer after hearing about 101st Sustainment Brigade's Sgt. 1st Class Charles Adkins' goal to begin restoring a Jeep purchased from eBay with his oldest son, Garrhett, upon returning from deployment.

His dream was shattered when a suicide bombing attack in April on a forward operating base in Afghanistan took him away from his wife of 14 years, Sarah, and their five children.

A Jeep lover himself, Axelson gathered resources and helped unite the community to fund a complete rebuild of the 1995 Jeep Wrangler YJ. Throughout the build, the Wish For Our Heroes non-profit organization came alongside to raise funds, and several local and national businesses donated parts and labor for the project.

"I just really enjoy taking care of our … Soldiers and their Families," Axelson explained to the crowd after the reveal. "I'm a big Family person."

A father himself, Axelson understood from the beginning what the rebuild would symbolize for Adkins children.

"What I had in mind for this Jeep, is that it not only be safe and reliable, but something that would last throughout their lives and just be a memory of what their dad wanted for them," he explained.

The reveal, scheduled to happen during country star Collin Raye's headlining performance at Riverfest, did not go as planned. Thunderstorms tumbled in, leaving many running to their cars, and eventually canceling Raye's appearance. However, a large crowd of people remained to see the Adkins Family unveil their new Jeep despite the rainy weather.

"I really wasn't expecting all this turnout," Axelson said.

The Family also enjoyed a meet and greet with Collin Raye and community supporters of the project after the reveal. Even the country crooner had a coincidental connection with the Adkins Family. Charles proposed to Sarah during a Raye song years ago.

Before signing T-shirts and bouncing the youngest Adkins Family member, Gavin, in his arms, Raye addressed the crowd.

"We can never stop doing this kind of thing, because you can never do it enough," the singer said. "We're always going to need our Soldiers. They're always going to go out there for us and do what they've done for all these years."

Sickness kept Garrhett from attending the festivities, and the unveiling of the vehicle he plans to drive when he turns 16. Sarah spoke for him, as well as her other children, Makayla, Mackenzie, Gabriella and Gavin, who simply refer to Axelson as "the Jeep guy."

"It's very overwhelming and amazing -- very overwhelming," Sarah said of the project. "… It's amazing, even though it rained, everybody still stayed. It says this community is awesome."

With the prospect of no more frazzled phone calls, donations to coordinate or fundraisers to plan, Axelson happily talked to those gathered but remained humble about his involvement.

"I'm just the guy who knows how to turn wrenches," he explained. "Everyone else made this possible."

Along with the support of local businesses, Axelson credits much of the build to his team of fellow Jeepers, Larry Schores, William Putnam, Jason Zimmerman, Brian Wimer and Joshua Davis, for helping provide the intensive and free labor required for such a task.

Many of the build team, including Schores, stayed to visit with the Adkins Family after the reveal. The 1st Battalion, 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment Soldier feels privileged to be a part of Operation Hero's Wish and provide assistance for another Soldier's Family in a "real, meaningful way."

"God puts us where he wants us, and I have a talent for working on Jeeps and a real passion for it," Schores said. "[The Jeep community is] very close, and we're always there to help each other out."

The team is already planning a few more additions for the Jeep, and Axelson hopes the Adkins Family will continue to turn to him, as well as the surrounding community, for help -- vehicle related or not.

Page last updated Fri September 16th, 2011 at 00:00