A hero’s home

NEWPORT TWP. – From prayers and well wishes in the wake of the explosion that cost him both legs and an arm to the huge turnout for a fundraising concert to help build his new home, the support of his community means a lot to U.S. Army Spc. Kyle Hockenberry.

“I’m really amazed every time. It hasn’t died down,” he said.

Hockenberry – wounded in Afghanistan in June 2010 and continuing his rehabilitation in San Antonio – was back in Washington County Friday to attend the groundbreaking ceremony for the smart home being built by the combined efforts of the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers and Gary Sinise foundations. The approximately $375,000 project is now fully funded, thanks to donations kicked off with an August concert by Academy Award-winning actor Sinise and his Lt. Dan Band at Marietta College.

“I really appreciate what you all have done to help with this house,” Hockenberry said to the approximately 100 people gathered Friday at the site of his new home, expected to be completed in six to eight months.

The land on Bells Run Road has been in Hockenberry’s family for about 100 years. His home will be built on the footprint of his great-great-grandmother’s house, a well-worn, two-story wood structure that was demolished as part of Friday’s ceremony.

But it didn’t go without a fight.

Hockenberry and members of his family chuckled as the house lasted several minutes longer than most of the onlookers expected under an assault from an excavator. It wasn’t until after Hockenberry and several others symbolically dug in a pile of dirt that the building finally came down.

At one point, Hockenberry suggested dynamite might have been a better approach.

There was a bittersweet quality to watching a house that held so many memories come crashing down, family members said, but they added they were looking forward to making new ones.

“I kind of feel like it’s been setting here, destined for this purpose, to go forward and stay in the family for another hundred years,” Hockenberry’s aunt, Bonnie Hockenberry, said, noting it hadn’t been occupied since 1975.

“We’re looking forward to Christmases and Thanksgivings at Kyle’s house,” she said.

The Tunnel to Towers Foundation was founded by the family of New York City Firefighter Stephen Siller, who was coming home from work on Sept. 11, 2001, when he learned of the planes that had crashed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center. He headed for the scene, and when he could drive no farther, he strapped 65 pounds of gear onto his back and ran the two miles from the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel to the towers, where he died helping others.

The foundation has teamed with Sinise’s organization to build customized homes for quadruple and triple amputees wounded in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.

No two of the homes are alike, said John Koch, manager for specially adaptive housing for the Tunnel to Towers Foundation.

“Each house we build is built to the needs of the individual,” he said.

Almost everything in the home will be operated by an iPad, from window treatments to shower temperature. Features in other homes the groups have built included wheelchair-level counters and cabinets with compartments that drop lower so the soldier can better access them.

“Not only does it give the service member freedom, but it gives their caregiver – in this case his wife, Ashley – freedom as well,” said John Hodge, director of operations for Tunnel to Towers.

Hockenberry has been involved with the designing of the home from the start. The artist’s rendering provided by locally based Mondo Building and Excavating includes the log-cabin exterior and lower-level access he requested, along with a wraparound porch so he can “sit out on my porch and enjoy the land, the peace and quiet,” Hockenberry said.

Mondo has been involved with other aspects of the project, including site preparation. Company owner Mark Mondo knocked down the existing structure himself Friday and also flew Hockenberry to the ceremony in his helicopter.

“When I realized we had a local soldier who’d made such a huge sacrifice, I just wanted to help him and his family,” Mondo said after the ceremony.

Koch said Mondo will be involved with the project going forward as will other local companies and workers.

“We bring in local people so it’s a community project,” Koch said.

Tunnel to Towers officials praised other local contributions Friday, including efforts by Marietta Mayor Joe Matthews and Safety-Service Director Jonathan Hupp and others to make the August concert a success. Hodge confessed he wasn’t sure the numbers would work out and the turnout would not be big enough.

“He said we couldn’t do it,” Matthews said. “I said, ‘Marietta, Washington County, the Ohio Valley, we can do anything.'”

The concert drew about 3,000 people and raised approximately $200,000 for the cause.

Also on hand for the ceremony were David Haas, with the Marietta Morning Rotary Club, which, in conjunction with the Noon Rotary contributed $42,000 to the project, and Rich Galen, a political columnist and former Marietta College student who raised $32,000 from readers of his website Mullings.com. Galen also delivered Hockenberry a thank-you from one of the donors – former Pennsylvania Governor and Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge.

Offering Hockenberry thanks and well wishes even though they couldn’t be there in person were Congressman Bill Johnson, R-Ohio and a Marietta resident, and Sinise, who both sent letters.