By Megan Locke, Fort Campbell Courier staffAugust 19, 2011
FORT CAMPBLELL, Ky., Aug. 19, 2011 -- Garrhett Adkins, 13, sits in a rocking chair outside his Clarksville, Tenn., home and tells his mother, Sarah, about baseball tryouts this weekend.
He loves sports and stays involved with football, basketball, baseball and golf throughout the year. He appears to be no different than the rest of his peers recently beginning their eighth grade year at Clarksville's Northeast Middle.
Yet, Garrhett seems quiet at times, thoughtful even. The oldest of five children, he grew up quickly in the past four months.
Garrhett's father, Sgt. 1st Class Charles Adkins, 101st Sustainment Brigade, died in a suicide bombing April 16 during a meeting at Forward Operating Base Gamberi while deployed to Afghanistan.
After the news reached Sarah, she was left with memories -- and a rusty 1995 Jeep Wrangler YJ in the driveway. Charles bought the vehicle in an online action during the deployment to kick start a father-son project upon his return.
Staff Sgt. Jason Axelson, an operations noncommissioned officer at the Installation Chaplain's office, heard about the Jeep from mutual friends, and an idea sprouted.
A Jeep lover and the Adkins' neighbor, he decided to turn the rusty reminder of what could have been into a celebration of Charles' life.
"I think it's great people are helping us build the Jeep up the way my dad wanted it," Garrhett explained. "I can't wait to see it."
Sarah never expected for anyone to do anything of this magnitude for her children, and when thinking about the scope of the project, she seems incredibly humbled.
"It's just very overwhelming what Jason and the whole community and people that we don't even know have [done] for us -- more so Garrhett," she said. "It's given us something to look forward to, instead of just worrying day to day what we're going to do."
While most boys approaching 16 might dream about the roar of the engine or the rims on the tires, these particulars are not what interests Garrhett most. In fact, the project's progress is still much of a secret leading up to the highly anticipated reveal during Collin Raye's 9 p.m. performance at Clarksville's Riverfest, Sept. 10.
"[I'm excited] just to see my dad's dream come true," Garrhett said.
Since taking on the project, Axelson took charge of rebuilding the Jeep from the ground up. His goal is to make the vehicle as safe and well-equipped as possible, just as Charles would have done. While Axelson cannot replace the father-son bond, he hopes that the completed Jeep will help cheer a family who has sacrificed so much.
While supporters donated more than $4,000 since the rebuild began in July, there is much more planned for the project that is estimated to cost closer to $12,000.
Donations are still being accepted through the Wish For Our Heroes Foundation, www.wish4ourheroes.org. The non-profit 501(c)(3) organization collects money for the project and others like it that provide for the needs and wants of deserving active-duty service members and their families. This allows Axelson to continuing spearheading the project, without worrying about coordinating the financial aspect.
Contributors can simply visit the website, where "Operation Hero's Wish" remains on the front page of the site. Simply click "ChipIn!" to donate, using any major credit card or PayPal.
While Axelson and his "build team" of fellow Soldiers and friends are doing much of the labor for the project, he is looking for help with a few specific items at the reveal draws near. Among them are the drivetrain with a warranty, which has fallen through twice already, as well as bumpers and a few other key parts.
"We're trying to find a drivetrain," he said. "It's the most expensive. It's the heart of the vehicle. Without a drivetrain, you just have a nice, pretty driveway ornament."
In addition to contributions from individuals, many local companies and businesses continue to support the project with parts and labor. Bumpus Body Shop, Budget Brakes, Meinke, Sonus Car Audio, Firestone and Signs Now are just a few of the many who have helped the project's progress.
"There are a lot of parts that I have to buy, because we're not getting everything donated," Axelson said.
In an attempt to gather more funds, a Jeep Ride fundraiser is set for 9 a.m. Aug. 27. Participants should meet at the parking lot between Blockbuster Video and McDonald's on 41-A (Fort Campbell Boulevard) in Clarksville. The convoy will head to Dickson, Tenn., at 11 a.m., where food and entertainment is planned. Also, a "Voter's Choice" best rig contest is in the works, as well as a raffle and silent auction portion.
"We've got some stuff that was donated to us specifically for us to raffle off or do a silent auction," Axelson said. "So we've got some really cool stuff. We have a brand new set of five beadlock wheels and mud tires, brand new front and rear Bestop seats. We might be getting a wench donated for us to raffle off.
"It's one of those things where, yes it is called a Jeep Ride, but you don't have to have a Jeep to participate. Anyone who wants to support the project can join in."
A $10 minimum donation per vehicle is requested, all of which goes to benefit the Operation Hero's Wish build.
"We still need the donations rolling in, because right now we don't have much left out of what's showing on [the Wish For Our Heroes] website."
The next step of the frame-off restoration, a first for Axelson, will be the reassembly. It's an exciting prospect to see the project develop, which began with deconstruction in July.
"You really start seeing the fruits of your labor taking shape," he explained. "That's the part that's most exciting for me."
News of the rebuild spread through the internet to Jeep lovers and military supporters across the country, just one of the reasons Axelson said the project continues to grow.
"It wouldn't possible if it wasn't for the help of the community," Axelson said. "I thought it was just going to be a small thing just here in my driveway, doing some cool stuff. It's just exploded."
Axelson understands what it is like to be a part of a military family, with children of his own, as well as brothers who are service members. Part of his reason for starting this project is to bring light to the sacrifices of not just Soldiers, Airmen, Sailors or Marines, but their mothers, brothers, aunts, cousins and friends.
"The families sacrifice too -- especially [the Adkins] family," he said. "This is a father of five, married for 14 years. They're never going to have him back.
"I just want people to know that we don't forget that our families are left behind. They will always be part of the Army family. Just because their loved ones are gone and not forgotten, they're not forgotten either."
To follow the project, 'Like' Operation Hero's Wish on Facebook, visit www.wish4ourheroes.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org.