On September 12th 2001, Americans woke up that morning and painfully reflected what transpired the day before.
This nation came together and we mourned those who lost their life and we celebrated the brave Americans who perished trying to save lives, both on the ground and in the air. All of us responded differently, but all of us responded and all of us came together, just like Americans do when our nation is attacked.
On that day, September 11th 2001, it changed our lives forever.
A Soldier's Journey Home is the result and passion of a mass of people who will never forget that day, but most importantly, have not forgotten what we as a nation felt like on September 12th 2001. Although none of us really knew each other on that day, all of us came from the same cloth. Most of us at the time were already involved in helping our fellow Americans. We served the public through the fire service, police departments, military service, taught school, civic leadership, or spent many hours supporting these organizations. So what galvanized this incredible group of people?
Soon after 9/11, some of our members who responded to the World Trade Center as firefighters made the decision to help other communities that were ravished by natural disaster. They did this because of the overwhelming support they received from all over the nation after the attack.
Initially the response to these communities was small, but an interesting phenomenon began to develop; after each event the movement began to grow and the phrase "Pay it Forward" became the battle cry. With each community: Harbison Canyon, California; Utica, Illinois; New Orleans, Louisiana; Degonia Springs, Indiana; Groesbeck, Texas, Greensburg, Kansas; Little Sioux, Iowa; Mena, Arkansas and Elijay, Georgia; they responded and could not wait for the next possibility to help their fellow Americans.
While all of this good will was being dispersed throughout the country, our nation was still in the midst of fighting global terrorism and strengthening our military to stop any future attacks. To accomplish that, many young men and women reacted to that 'call of duty' and became members of our Armed Forces and sadly, many of them died serving and protecting our way of life. These conflicts also left our fighting men and women with some horrific injuries after they served so bravely.
Elijay, Georgia was another display of how Americans can come together to accomplish greatness. Over 400 individuals from around the nation responded to this small north Georgia town that was ravished by a tornado. Our task was to build a state of the art rescue barn to replace a building that was destroyed by that terrible storm and although we reached our goal that week, something profound happened that changed our lives forever. And even though we were unaware, A Soldier's Journey Home was born.
Out of nowhere and unrelated to what we were doing in Elijay, a lady from a nearby community showed up and was asking for help. As we stood there listening to her story, we all knew at that time what are calling would be in the future. This Gold Star mother who lost her son in Iraq was turning to us to help another soldier who was severely injured and was currently recovering at Walter Reed hospital. Although this family did not have much, they were able to muster up enough money to make some basic modification to their home, so their severely injured son could live an easier life once he arrived back home to Georgia. Unfortunately, the group who began the project did not complete and left them in a bad situation since their son was coming home soon. After hearing this heart breaking story we reacted. The job was scouted, supplies were ordered and twelve people showed up and completed the construction required to get this young hero a good start. That was where our mission changed. Although we were all very proud of the life changing projects we had been a part of, we knew it was time to help those young people who made the decision to serve their country and paid a huge price for their service.
The mission is simple, find a worthy recipient, galvanize the community, have a call to action and build that young man or woman a house that will allow them to flourish and prosper for the rest of their lives. That process started in Guntersville, Alabama with a soldier who, while serving in Afghanistan, was severely injured when an improvised explosive device (IED) detonated and took both of his legs. When we heard about this story, the process began. Over a one year period we built a strong community presence, engaged a regional awareness and empowered a national push to get this project rolling. In April 2014, 18 firefighters, police officers (retired and active) and military veterans from four states responded along with a massive local community push and built a house that is completely adaptive to this soldier's unique situation.
Our next mission brought us to Ringgold, Georgia. Jason Smith was also serving his country in Afghanistan. In 2012 SGT Smith and his squad were sweeping for IED's when one device was detected. After the explosion, SGT Smith had countless injuries including the loss of both legs. Jason completed his rehabilitation at Fort Sam Houston and soon returned home to the Chattanooga, Tennessee area. After hearing about Jason and meeting this young man, the decision was made to make him the next project. Although the presence of out of state volunteers in Alabama was impressive, the outpouring of support for the Ringgold project was incredible. On April 30th, 52 individuals from nine states came to help. These individuals represented many different entities including firefighters, police, military veterans, teachers, skilled labor, professionals and comedians, just to name a few. Using the same process of creating a community spark and building a great grassroots organization, Jason, his wife Lauren and daughter Lyla, moved into their beautiful adapted house in May 2015.
With all of the success attributed to these three projects and the unforeseen growth, we truly did not have a set organization that would better serve our future projects. In June 2015, the first Board of Directors meeting was called with the purpose of building a strong organization that would stand the test of time.