A seemingly endless procession of cars pulled down the long driveway leading to Jereme Sawyer’s new home — making the loop around and driving back out onto the roadway in rural Tenino.
Sawyer drove the last car, parking it at the end of the sidewalk, opening the door and giving a hug to the first person to greet him, Bill Ivey, executive director of the nonprofit Homes For Our Troops. Sawyer — who lost both of his legs in Helmand Province, Afghanistan in April 2012 — retrieved his wheelchair from the trunk of his car, as he walked on his “bottle caps” on the ends of his legs.
He wheeled down the sidewalk to a tented area in front of the garage, a color guard leading the way, and people standing along the sidewalk, holding U.S/ flags — all a gesture to say something numerous people would tell Sawyer before the day was done: Welcome home.
Homes For Our Troops is a Massachusetts-based nonprofit that builds homes for injured veterans of post-9/11 wars. Sawyer’s home in Tenino was the 281st home built since the organization’s inception in 2004, and the sixth in Washington state. Each home is catered to meet any accessibility needs the veteran might have, and comes at no cost and with no mortgage payments. The organization stays in contact with the vets after the home is complete, and provides further support as vets strive for new careers or continuing education.
Saturday, there was a key ceremony where the house key was officially handed over to Sawyer after months of construction. Ground was broken in the winter months, and general contractor Cary Miller with Miller Construction said the process was a sparring match with uncooperative weather, but construction was back on schedule in May.
Sawyer said he was likely to start moving in that evening and fully settled sometime the following week — something he was both excited for and anxious about. Years of wheelchair use in his rental house caused its fair share of wear and tear on the property, and he was hoping not to leave it in poor condition when he left.
“It literally looks like a freaking metro subway station down the hallway of my rental home,” he said, referencing wheelchair tracks in the carpet.
Sawyer said he was at the house during its construction throughout the process, and gave his heartfelt thanks to the individuals involved as he addressed the crowd during the event.
The new house is outfitted with many alterations designed to mitigate hardship that comes with limited mobility. Such limitations lead to a life with a lot of small inconveniences that likely won’t occur to most — like scraping your knuckles on doorframes, performing gymnastic-like feats of agility to get into the shower and traversing the single step leading up to the front door of most homes.
Sawyer’s house is outfitted with all hardwood floors, roll-under counter tops, a roll-in shower and pull-down cabinets.
“The house behind us, it’s not just four walls. This home is going to offer his freedoms back, and movement and peace of mind, it really is,” said Chad Green, Sawyer’s best friend who’s known him for going on three decades. Green, along with a number of other people addressed a crowd of people in front of the house for the ceremony. Among them were representatives from big-name sponsors of Homes For Our Troops like Amazon, Boeing and Sierra Pacific. Others represented more local support, like Belco Forest Products and Miller Construction.
Green’s address, however, remained the most personal, as he recounted his first conversation with Sawyer after learning his friend had been injured in a life-altering way by a reverse pressure plate improvised explosive device.
Green recounted how he pulled his vehicle to the side of the road and went into something of a panic when his cellphone started to ring, with Sawyer’s number showing on the caller’s ID. Green didn’t think Sawyer was going to be able to contact him at that point, and the call came as a surprise. In the days before, Green had gathered friends of his and Sawyer’s and told them that he had been hurt while serving in Afghanistan. They wondered if their friend would be the same person he was when they saw him last, or if the injuries would alter his personality.
Shaking, Green answered the phone and Sawyer’s voice, in a mock Southern accent, came from the phone saying: “Lt. Dan, I got no legs,” as a reference to the movie “Forrest Gump.” He and Sawyer would often talk in movie quotes, Green said.
“What do you say to that?” Green said to the audience, who had broken into a relieved laughter.
Dan Griffey, state representative for Washington’s 35th District which includes parts of Thurston County, also took to the stage during the event Saturday, where he welcomed Sawyer home.
“What we get to do is never make the mistake that we have made in the past as a country and forget to welcome them home, and we’re going to do that and we’re keep this going forward,” he said.