By Amy Guckeen Tolson, USAG RedstoneNovember 28, 2011
REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. (Nov. 28, 2011) -- To the rest of the world it is just a key, but for retired Cpl. Jeffery Williams, it unlocks a world of independence and possibilities.
Homes for Our Troops, a national non-profit organization dedicated to building specially made homes for severely wounded veterans at no cost to them, gave Williams the keys to his brand new home, built just for him, in a key ceremony Saturday.
"This home is a gift of freedom and independence, the same gift that you fought for on our behalf, and that so many patriots before you have fought for throughout America's history," Larry Gill, veterans' liaison for the organization, said reading from a letter written by Homes for our Troops president and founder, John Gonsalves. "We could not be happier that we are now able to give something back to you. It is my hope that you'll enjoy many years of happiness and comfort in this home that was built with our hands and our hearts especially for you."
It is a future that Williams never imagined for himself when he was injured in Iraq in May 2004.
Born and raised in the country in Wilcox County, after graduating high school Williams joined the Army at 19. Even though he had watched the images of the twin towers falling on that fateful day in September 2001, he didn't necessarily join the military to avenge the actions of Osama bin Laden, but rather, to pave his own way to a better life.
"I did it for a way out," Williams said. "Even though I joined at a time of war, even when the recruiter told us it could happen, we could to go Iraq or Afghanistan, I didn't want it to be me."
A member of 3rd Battalion, 62nd Air Defense Artillery Regiment, 10th Mountain Division (Light Infantry) out of Fort Drum, N.Y., Williams was nine and a half months into his first yearlong deployment to Iraq, when the Humvee he was traveling in on a mission in Fallujah was hit by an improvised explosive device, or IED.
The blast killed the vehicle's driver, as well as Williams' battle buddy, ripping him in two, but shielding Williams from the blast. It was a piece of metal that changed the course of Williams' life; a piece that traveled through his buddy, and into Williams' neck, coming out through his back. May 25, 2004 was to be the last day Williams would ever feel his legs.
"When I got injured the medic told me to stand up and I told him I couldn't stand up, but at the time I didn't know why I couldn't stand up," Williams said.
Despite a large hole in his neck, through which he could hear his breath come out and his blood bubbling, Williams remained conscious until the doctors put him under for lifesaving surgery. When he awoke at Walter Reed, he waited for what he thought was a shot from the doctor that would wake his legs up.
"Twenty-one years old -- that was horror at first. Why didn't you just all let me stay out there on the battlefield and die? I couldn't see quality of life in a wheelchair," Williams said.
Williams retreated into himself, remaining in bed and throwing himself what he calls "a pity party." It wasn't until he was transported to the Augusta VA medical center where he was able to see other wounded warriors just like himself, that he was able to find hope.
Learning from the example of those around him, as well as occupational therapists who taught him how to be independent, after a year in the hospital, Williams returned home to live with his mother in Wilcox County, where he was faced with a new set of challenges -- meeting people that knew him before the injury and the wheelchair.
"People that I know don't know me like this. They're talking to you, but they're looking at you with this look on their face. You hate to see that look on their face," Williams said.
So Williams moved north to Huntsville, where he has built a life for the past six years, living in an apartment that granted him some independence, with the dream of going back to school.
"I do everything except in a different way," he said. "Every man puts his pants on one leg at a time. I don't. I put my pants on two legs at a time."
While he can drive, shower and do other things for himself, his independence isn't what it was before his injury, so when Homes for Our Troops came calling, offering to build him a home specially tailored for him and his needs, including a therapy tub, roll-in shower, roll-under sinks, hard surface floors and automatic door openers, it was an offer he couldn't refuse.
"All the independence I don't have now, they're giving it all back to me, stuff I never thought would be possible. I can cook for myself. It will make my quality of life way better," he said.
It is a gift and mindset, Williams said, that he doesn't think Osama bin Laden intended to give to Americans when he masterminded the Sept. 11 attacks.
"This man thought that he could put fear into our minds, but look at what this has made us do. You've got total strangers coming together for the sacrifice I made in Iraq," Williams said. "He sent his soldiers out to put a suicide bomb on, and we send our Soldiers over and when they get home we're going to do everything we possibly can for them. That's a great feeling."
Through the hard work of volunteers, the generosity of donors, and general contractor Tod Yarbrough with Renaissance Builders Inc., construction on the home off Nick Davis Road in Madison began in June. After being handed the key to his new home, Williams, surrounded by friends and family, toured the finished product, wheeling around in awe at the outpouring of love and support from complete strangers, which he will be reminded of every time he turns the key to his home.
"I couldn't see this when I first got hurt," Williams told the crowd during the key ceremony. "I couldn't see any of this. When I first got hurt I thought I didn't want to be here anymore. God put people like y'all in my life. You've really uplifted me, you've given me self-esteem, given me the drive to know that anything is possible."
Since its inception in 2004, Homes for Our Troops has built more 100 homes nationwide. Williams' home is the third home built by the organization in Alabama, the first two completed in Irvington in 2008 and Trussville in 2010. Each veteran is given the opportunity to select the city he would like to live in, the floor plan, which typically runs around 2,600 square feet, as well as the colors.
For more information, visit www.homesforourtroops.org.