It‘s a long way from Helmand Province Afghanistan to Huntington. Especially after losing both your legs above the knee while serving your country, as U.S. Marine Corps Capt. James Byler has.
But a concerted community effort to welcome Byler home has helped him in that journey -- including a $250,000 project to rebuild his family home with specially adapted features, coordinated by a group called Building Homes For Heroes.
Under blue skies and with flags waving, hundreds of well-wishers thronged tree-lined Broadview Avenue in Huntington Saturday to see the results of that effort -- and officially welcome the young man home.
"This project was more than just bricks and mortar," said the Rev. R. David Aldredge of the of Huntington, in welcoming remarks.
He got that right and more.
The afternoon began with a ceremonial walk by numerous community groups and officials, led by the Patriot Guard Riders -- a group of motorcycle enthusiasts who provide escorts and stand flag lines in support of U.S. service members, veterans, and their families.
The walk was followed by a two-hour program featuring tributes to Byler by elected officials and representatives of the Valley Stream-based Building Homes for Heroes, who lavished praise on those who made refurbishment of the family home possible.
Byler lost both his legs in October 2010 after stepping on an improvised explosive device in North Helmand Province, Afghanistan while leading an infantry platoon of the Third Battalion, 5th Marines. Since then he has captured the attention of the Huntington community, which has thrown its support into the effort to create a specially adapted home for him that features open floor plan, large door openings and halls, hardwood floors, roll-in showers, roll-under counters and more.
According to Andy Pujol, Building Homes for Heroes president, the list of those who helped make the project possible is long. “Our first fundraiser was at Nags Head, we raised over $10,000,” he said. “Engemann Theater in Northport sponsored a Broadway salute next, that raised $30,000.”
He also recognized BAE Systems, , Buddy Harrelson, the 63 contractors who donated their services, and Boy Scout Troop 305, which spent a day laying mulch on the Byler property. And Pujol praised Huntington Town Councilman Mark Mayoka, who he said initiated the idea and “was by our side the whole time.”
Currently Building Homes for Heroes has 15 homes under construction nationwide and 30 planned for next year, said Pujol. And with the help of local lawyer Fred Giachetti, who helped make contact with Chase Bank, they now have a deal which he said will result in 10 similar projects each year through 2016.
A moving moment on the day came when Marine Col. Willard Buhl, commander of the Wounded Warrior Regiment, noted the storied history of the Third Battalion. It is one of the most decorated groups in the Marine Corps, with distinguished service in WWI when it stopped a German advance on Paris, at Guadalcanal, the Pusan Perimeter and Inchon, and as the spearhead of the 1100 km march from Kuwait to Baghdad.
“This battalion helped clear the city of Fallujah,“ he said. “And in Helmand Province, they took away the heart of the Taliban nexus.“
Buhl, who recalled the reception afforded service men and women from the Vietnam era, praised the town of Huntington and community for its support of Byler. “You have offered them the stability of our nation,” he said. “This is true healing power, a demonstration of what our nation is doing today for our war wounded.”