published Friday, June 28th, 2013

Construction begins on house in Apison, Tenn., for disabled soldier (with slideshow)

Workers and volunteers with Steps2Hope erect the first set of walls.
Workers and volunteers with Steps2Hope erect the first set of walls.
Photo by Dan Henry.
VIDEO

This story is featured in today's TimesFreePress newscast.

TO HELP

Visit Steps2Hope.com for information on how to donate time, money or supplies or volunteer on the build project.

CONSTRUCTION UPDATES

WRCB is featuring live reports from the house in every newscast through the dedication.

See a live camera at the build site here.

The early morning sounds of bird chirps and pine tree branches swaying in the breeze gave way to the pop of pneumatic nail guns, the thwack of hammers and human voices moving people to tasks. Some carried worn tool belts filled with hammers and nails and measuring tapes. Others toted digital cameras and water bottles. All came to give a piece of their time for a man who gave parts of his body a year ago in Afghanistan.

"Welcome to Camp Hope," said Jim Fleming, one of the project organizers. "We're here to build a house."

Cheers and applause echoed from the mass of nearly 70 volunteers on a spot of grass a few hundred feet from the foundation of a house in Apison that's planned to be finished in seven days.

Emblazoned on numerous camouflage T-shirts were the words "TEAM ANDREW" and below, "Enlisted June 27, 2013."

The men and women at this site, building a home for U.S. Army Spc. Andrew Smith and his wife, Tori Smith, may have begun the physical labor to make the structure a reality on Thursday.

But the tragedy and ensuing gratitude it took to get to this point began a year ago.

On March 8, 2012, the specialist was on his first combat foot patrol in Afghanistan when his unit began taking fire. While moving through a field, he stepped on an improvised explosive device. The blast took both of his legs below the knee.

Shortly after Smith returned to the United States, local businessman and Smith family friend Mark Wilson visited the soldier and his wife at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center near Washington, D.C., to ask if he could work toward building a home for the veteran for when he returns to Chattanooga.

More than 40 surgeries and a year's worth of rehabilitation later, Smith walks with the help of two canes on prosthetic legs. That's when he's not buzzing around in an all-terrain, tank-like wheelchair recently given to him by political talk-show host Bill O'Reilly.

Wilson established the nonprofit "Steps2Hope" and took on the Smith family home as its first project.

Volunteer organizer Fleming said that a portion of the crew worked on the 2011 "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" project in Rossville.

Fleming said there were similarities but also some differences between the projects. He also learned a lot on that build to apply here.

"We didn't know what we were getting into there, we were all rookies and just hoping that the organization ABC brought to it ... would help," Fleming said.

There won't be a big, made-for-TV dramatic "reveal" moment on this build, he said. The Smiths have been closely involved in the planning of the house and both were at the site early Thursday.

"There's a lot of emotions going on right now," Andrew Smith said. "It's finally here, all of the volunteers and the coordinated effort, it's really awesome."

"We know what it's going to look like but it's still hard to process," he said of envisioning the home on the cleared, wooded site with a concrete slab foundation and stacks of framing nearby.

"Oh, is that our first wall?" Tori Smith said. "Seeing stuff like that I can start picturing it."

The plan, Wilson said, is to hand over keys to the home on July 4, one week from the start date. The Smiths will have a place to stay while traveling back and forth from Washington, D.C., but the couple won't be settled in permanently until December at the earliest.

Andrew is still on active duty service while he attends physical therapy and must go through a detailed out-processing evaluation with the Army before he can return to civilian life.

But the forest clearing soon to be called the Smith home is perfectly situated for the couple.

"My parents live five miles that way, his life five miles that way," Tori Smith said.

Contact staff writer Todd South at tsouth@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter at tsouthCTFP.

about Todd South...

Todd South covers courts, poverty, technology, military and veterans for the Times Free Press. He has worked at the paper since 2008 and previously covered crime and safety in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia. Todd’s hometown is Dodge City, Kan. He served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps and deployed to Iraq before returning to school for his journalism degree from the University of Georgia. Todd previously worked at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. Contact ...

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