Army Sergeant Jereme Sawyer’s life changed forever the moment a reverse pressure plate improvised explosive device detonated under his feet on April 3, 2012, in Helmand Province, Afghanistan.
The explosion cost the then 35-year-old both of his legs and fractured his pelvis in four places. He received more than 40 blood transfusions during the recovery process, much of which took place at a military hospital in San Antonio, Texas.
Another life-altering process began while Sawyer, now medically retired from the military, resided in San Antonio. Homes For Our Troops, a nonprofit organization based out of Massachusetts that builds and donates specially adapted homes for severely wounded veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is set to add Sawyer to their list of more than 250 veterans served since 2004.
The organization is set to hold a community kickoff event to signal the start of construction on Sawyer’s home at 10 a.m. Saturday at the Tenino Elementary School.
Members of the public will be invited to a community volunteer day at the home site, located near Maytown but with a Tenino address, on a date to be determined, as well as a key ceremony upon completion of the project.
“The biggest part of the process is really welcoming the veteran into the community and making them feel welcome,” said Kristi Galanek, Director of Marketing for Homes For Our Troops. “Everyone is welcome to come out and meet him — come out and say hello.”
Sitting in a wheelchair in what will become his driveway, Sawyer spoke excitedly about the more than 40 adaptations that will be built into the house to accommodate his needs.
Hardwood floors, roll-under sinks and kitchen cabinets that lower down to within his reach are among the features he’s most looking forward to. The owner of the Rochester home he rents with his mother has bent over backwards to accommodate him without hesitation, Sawyer said, but he feels bad that his wheelchair has scarred the fixtures and done a number on the carpeting there.
The retired veteran is also looking forward to adding a shop building off his garage within the next few years. A self-proclaimed “gear-head,” Sawyer participates in area car clubs and recently drove the modified truck he received via a Department of Veterans Affairs disability grant to the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota. He followed that trip with a drive to Roush Enterprises in Detroit, where he learned about the automotive behemoth’s hiring initiative program for veterans.
Sawyer plans to take classes such as welding at a local college once his home is complete. Homes For Our Troops donates the house and property so the veteran does not owe rent or have to pay for a mortgage, but he hopes to learn a new trade that allows him to return to the workforce.
“For me, being retired in my mid-30s all of a sudden was super unusual,” Sawyer said. “I’d been working since I was 15 years old. To go from a fully functioning asset who is paying into society to one that isn’t working, it was kind of a boundary for me.”
Going through the process of acquiring the land his house will sit on was also an internal struggle for Sawyer.
Homes For Our Troops stipulates that properties be at least an acre in size, but does not give the veteran a budget to adhere to. The nonprofit does have to approve the parcel once its submitted for consideration — Sawyer had four spots denied before settling on the one in Tenino.
Without knowing what the nonprofit often spent on land purchases, Sawyer did not want overstep his bounds and take funding away from veterans who could benefit from it in the future.
“We all got injured in some form or fashion while doing our duty for the American people,” Sawyer said. “Personally, I hate the fact I got injured every time I think about it. I didn’t do anything out of the ordinary — it could have just as easily been someone else in my platoon. Everyone always tells me how that I feel that way is what makes me a hero, and it’s hard for me to accept that.”
He calmed his anxiety when he attended a Homes For Our Troops event for another Washington veteran. While there, he pulled the man’s wife aside and said he had a couple questions for her, and that she was under no obligation to answer.
“I know exactly what you’re going to ask, and it’s okay,” Sawyer remembers her saying. The purchase price of his nearly five-acre plot was not immediately available, but was significantly less than the $260,000 that veteran’s land cost.
Sawyer plans to be as hands-on as possible with contractor Cary Miller of Yelm, who has completed three house builds in conjunction with Homes For Our Troops, during the construction process.
He says he’s looking forward to meeting members of the South Thurston County community on Saturday and throughout the process, and already has big plans for his key ceremony when the time comes.
“To this day, I haven’t hung one picture or unpacked any of my army memorabilia, because I don’t want to set it up,” Sawyer said. “I don’t feel like it’s a place that’s my own. That’s something I’ve been saving, that moment when I can dig out my old military stuff, my coins and my flag, and be able to display that all at my home.”