ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. (Dec. 24, 2014) -- Retired Army Sgt. Jason Smith deployed to southern Afghanistan in March 25, 2012, for an eight-month deployment; during the halfway mark, on July 25, 2012, an improvised explosive device, or IED, detonated, causing severe injuries to Smith's arms and hands, and amputation of both his legs.
After hearing his story, the staff and students from John Hersey High School, or JHHS, located in Arlington Heights, Illinois, decided that they wanted to do something to give back to Smith. On Nov. 11, the students started 'Team Jason' in conjunction with STEPS2HOPE, an organization that rehabs and builds homes for wounded veterans. A school effort began raising money to build a home for Smith and his family in the State of Georgia where they reside.
"Mr. [James] Miks [JHHS teacher/coach] met Jason Smith during an honor for him at Northwestern [University], and he was so moved by his story that he wanted to help him out," said Owen Connor, senior at JHHS. "So we started fundraising for Jason to build him a new home."
Carolyn Niersbach, a senior at JHHS, stated that generally the various student groups and organizations fundraise individually for their different causes, but this effort for Smith brought the groups and organizations together in one combined effort.
"This fundraiser has come to be characterized by student initiative and we've seen a lot of our clubs and our student organizations all come together for one fundraising theme," said Niersbach. "To all come together for Jason has been really important for our school, and we've seen it have a huge impact on the whole culture."
The students began fundraising for Smith near Veterans Day on Nov. 11, 2014. They attempted fundraising by not just asking for donations, but trying to incorporate it in a fun manner such as a gingerbread house-building competition, during basketball games, and throughout the school's student clubs.
In about a month's period, the students raised $18,000 towards a home for Smith.
"To me it is incredible that we were able to all come together as a school to raise that much money," said Mili Pandya, JHHS senior.
According to Connor, previous to the fundraiser for Smith, the students had just completed a canned food fundraiser, raising over 51,000 cans.
"It's amazing that we raised that much (for Smith) because a lot of students spent their own money on cans, buying cans," said Connor. "After that, it's amazing that we could raise this much money while everyone's buying Christmas gifts, it's amazing how much everyone gave."
Following the fundraiser, the students and staff invited Smith to their school on Dec. 19, to honor him and present him with a ceremonial check representing the $18,000 to build his home. An estimated 2,000 students, staff and community members participating in Smith's effort attended the ceremony at JHHS.
Army Reserve Soldiers from the 85th Support Command, based in Arlington Heights, were also invited to participate in the ceremony honoring Smith.
Lt. Col. Craig Lanigan, Maj. Lawrence Reid, and Staff Sgt. Terence Barron came from the local Army Reserve unit in support of Smith.
"I came out today just to support a fellow Soldier in what he's been through," said Barron, who has served on two deployments. "It's always good to be around someone like that. It's the first time, for me, honoring someone like this."
Smith enlisted as in infantryman in the U.S. Army in 2009; previous to his 2012 deployment, he served at Camp Casey, South Korea, and at Fort Lewis, Washington.
On July 25, 2012, Smith was conducting a class to members of the Afghan National Army when they heard an explosion. While initiating a battle damage assessment, or BDA, a second IED went off near Smith.
"I did a back flip; I was conscious the whole time. The dust settled, [and] I called [out to] the Soldier that pulled security. He was lying down. I thought it was him who got hurt so I tried to crawl to him, realizing that I couldn't move; then I knew it was me. I didn't realize how bad it was. I was on my stomach at the time," said Smith. "So I was kicking my feet (identifying) that I could feel them. It was cool. I was moving my hands. I saw [that] my hands were mangled up, [and] they looked pretty bad. My squad leader and saw gunner jumped up on me real quick. And they applied some tourniquets. They flipped me over and I lost my leg above my knee on my left leg, and [my leg] below my knee on my right leg."
Following the injury, Smith spent near two months in the hospital and then followed with four and a half months in rehabilitation.
"It was very tough, grueling to learn how to do everything again," said Smith. "The blast put me in shock. I [felt] more angry than anything. At the time of the impact, I was afraid that my girlfriend was going to leave me. [I thought] I was never going to be able to do certain things [again]"
Surprisingly, Smith added that this incident turned his life for the better.
"It's probably the best thing that ever happened to me," Smith said. "After my injuries, my girlfriend broke up with me, but I met [Lauren] my wife, last Christmas. We got married in September , and we have a baby, Lila Gean, [that]was born in November. She's five weeks old. It's the best thing that could have happened to me. You don't know what could have happened [in Afghanistan]. The next day, [after the explosion] I could have been shot in the neck or the face. And I wouldn't have had the opportunity to start a family, my family."
Smith commented that his biggest take a way from the incident was the humbling process.
"I thought I was untouchable. I was the PT [physical training] stud, I was the 'fast-track' guy, I knew everything. I didn't take the insurgents seriously, [but] I am humbled now," said Smith. "You realize what's important, [and] what's not important. I am a better person for it."
Owning a home was not a large factor for Smith until his recent marriage to his wife, and recent birth of this daughter. Smith felt that regardless of what now may take place in his life, he would be okay because he knew he'd at least have a place to call home for his family. Smith's home is anticipated to be complete by early May 2015.
"It's an honor," said Smith. "Words can't explain how blessed I am for people that want to help my family, and to help me in our future endeavors in getting a home. It's just amazing."