Shortly after one o’clock yesterday afternoon, “Wounded Warrior” Andrew Smith and his wife Tori walked to the front door of their magnificent new home. He had just gotten out of a limousine after a moving ceremony at Linda and Bill Hullender’s farm nearby and, with a clutch of cameras capturing the young couple’s every move, and he stopped at the front door.
“Dear heavenly Father,” he began as he cradled his wife’s head close to his own. “We are unable to express our love and gratitude to you for all of your many blessings. We are also inadequate in our thanks to each and every person who was part of this dream-come-true but we know it was by your hand. This is so incredible, Lord, that we are speechless, but as we enter the house where we hope to live for a long time, we ask that You will please bless this house as you have so already so richly and fully blessed out lives. In Jesus’ name I pray to you, Amen.”
Okay, that is not exactly what he said precisely word-for-word; I could neither see nor write due to four hours of constant emotion and being so overwhelmed with joy. But it is close, very close, and when the beaming soldier turned to open the door and beckon his bride across the sparkling threshold, cute Tori let out the traditional Army yell, “WHOOO-wah!” and every veteran in heaven from every war ever fought commenced to smiling.
Earlier, in a jam-packed barn on the Hullender farm, the young soldier whose legs were blow away and his body wrecked by an explosive device in Afghanistan in March of 2012, was honored by many of the 1,100 people who – in just seven days and nights – built the gorgeous home of four wooded acres in tiny Apison.
Mark Wilson, the guiding force of a foundation called “Steps 2 Hope,” presented Andrew with the keys to the front door. It was Wilson, who vividly remembered the anguish and long days after his own son was critically injured by a terrible tornado, who started the foundation to help others. And at least three-fourths of the huge crowd that gathered wore “Team Andrew” T-shirts, huge smiles, and watery eyes.
General B. B. Bell, also wearing a Team Andrew shirt after taking orders for the last week, was given a standing ovation even before he spoke but his brief remarks quickly earned him another. “Welcome to America!” he began before telling the crowd, “This is what this country is about,” he waved his arm towards the army who had just accomplished the tremendous deed, “but I am ashamed to be the speaker when the real hero in this room sits before me,” he gestured to Smith.
General Bell said that exactly 150 years ago before the Smith house was dedicated on Independence Day, Pickett’s Charge took place at the Civil War battle of Gettysburg. Four thousands were killed, and 80,000 wounded, but it prompted President Lincoln to make the Gettysburg Address and allow me to recite the way it ended:
“’ …we here highly resolved that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom— and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth,’” he said in splendid Fourth of July fashion.
His talk, although too brief for any who have worked beside him in the past week as the house was being built, was fabulous, at times stirring response from many in the room. “When I first met Andrew Smith, I asked him why he enlisted in the Army, and basically he told me those exact words, that this nation, UNDER GOD –underline that, too – shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from this earth.”
General Bell looked at the Wounded Warrior. “I thank you, sir, for your commitment to freedom. Then, turned to the audience, he forcefully added, “May God bless you all,” and a crescendo of a roar filled the room.
Todd Gaither, singing “Bring Him Home” from the play Les Miserable, only heightened the deep love for fellow man, but Wilson, who like superintendent Sherman Smith hasn’t slept for over three hours a night, since the project began, got the most rousing ovation of all.
“Everywhere that our volunteers have looked this week they could see the number 416. I want to explain that. It comes from II Corinthians, the fourth chapter, sixteenth verse: ‘Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day.’”
So the front door key to the “dream home” was engraved “4-16,” admitting the project was “without doubt the most rewarding thing our family has ever done.”
A documentary of a video – showing only a bare concrete slab seven days prior -- was shown to the music of Rascal Flatts (Won’t Let You Go”) and Celine Dion (“God Bless America) before the youthful couple stood to endure the cheers and the adoration of those gathered. Tori told of last year’s Fourth, when Andrew still couldn’t eat food, and how far they’d come. “I’m so proud to be your wife,” she said to her husband. “Thank you for giving us a life.”
And Andrew thanked everyone by simply saying, “You guys have blessed us so much.” Later he would explain. “It is all so overwhelming. Ever since the first day, it feels like words – anything you say – are so inadequate. This is just unbelievable.”
Watching the two take the first tour their new home was hysterical, their heads bobbing and hearts dancing as they went from one room to the next. With joy to be seen everywhere, Andrew’s parents – Todd and Cathy – were equally stymied. “I think we are beyond emotion. We are stunned that so many people would just stop the world they live in to make this possible,” Cathy said. “18 months ago we were praying desperately for his life, having no idea what the Lord had in store.”
The tour ended at what the two feel is their favorite part of the house, a huge back porch area where they had laughingly told magic-maker Wilson they wanted “a place to shoot guns without hurting anyone.”
Wilson pointed to two men standing in the drive. “They want a word with you.”
The two were members of the Chattanooga Police Departments SWAT team who, as the ceremony was being held, had feverishly set up a firing range in front of a steeply-excavated future building site. They two outfitted Smith with eye and ear protection and then – to the delight of the large crowd – produced a machine gun, telling the beaming soldier, “Have at it!”
Someone in the crowd joyously yelped, “Extreme Make-Over, Redneck Version!” as Andrew tried the first weapon since he was horribly injured that fateful day in March, 2012. He started with several quick bursts and then went rapid-fire. Tori did the same and whether it was the loud clatter or realizing they were shooting from the back of their house where no one would get hurt, the two looked at each other in pure bedazzled joy.
“Welcome to America” indeed. This Independence Day will never be forgotten.