A rock-star welcome for wounded warrior

A rock-star welcome for wounded warrior

September 28th, 2012 by Todd South in Local Regional News

U.S. Army Spc. Andrew Smith, left, hugs his 14-year-old sister Katie Smith on the runway.

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.

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* Online: www.steps2hope.com

* Mail: Make check out to Generosity Trust; in the memo line write: Steps 2 Hope; mail to 1901 Central Ave., Chattanooga, TN 37408

* Phone: Call Mark Wilson at 423-267-3708

An hour before sunrise Thursday morning, a few dozen people mingled in a brightly lit airport hangar, listening to country music, sipping on coffee and waiting.

The throng grew in clusters of 10 or more shuttled in from their parking spots until it numbered more than 150. Some wore navy-blue T-shirts with "Team Andrew" across their chests, others wore Chattanooga Christian School jerseys or letter jackets.

Then the white and red Gulfstream G450 private jet landed at 7:45 a.m. As it cruised into view, voices shrieked and screamed as the door opened, the stairs came down and an attendant laid down a small red carpet.

"We love you, Andrew," one woman's voice carried over the din.

U.S. Army Spc. Andrew Smith, a 25-year-old Chattanooga native, took a careful step out of the doorway, each hand grasping a cane to support his prosthetic legs. He nearly stumbled but gripped tightly and stood straight as he made his way down one stair at a time.

Once on Tennessee ground, he and his wife, Tori Smith, paused to face the crowd waiting in the hangar, a few hundred feet away. Again the cheers blared; again the flags waved.

Among those cheering were husband and wife Mick and Deby Hazelwood and their grandson Cameron Close, 15, a student at Chattanooga Christian. The teen said getting up this early on a school day was a "very small price to pay" compared with Smith's sacrifice.

Deby Hazelwood said a nephew of hers and some other family members are serving in the military and she wanted to honor Smith and other veterans.

"They need to know the support they have in their local community," she said over the roar of jet engines on the runway.

Smith strode smoothly to a waiting podium and stood as a politician, preacher and fundraiser praised him.

Then side-by-side, he and Tori took their turn to say thank you.

"I'm glad I didn't fall on my face coming down the stairs," Smith joked. "There's a lot of familiar faces and quite a few that I've never met, that neither of us have ever met; that's amazing."

"This is something we talk about every day. 'What's your goal?' Getting back home and living our lives,'" she said.

Six months ago, Smith was walking his first combat foot patrol in Afghanistan. The Lee University graduate's unit came under fire, and they sprinted through a nearby field, attacking and evading.

One step set off a buried bomb that took Smith's legs, one at the knee, the other above it, and caused near-fatal injuries to his abdomen. A short time, later Tori met him at Walter Reed National Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

The hospital has been home since then and will likely be for maybe another year, the couple said.

But their goal is to return home and Mark Wilson, a local businessman and founder of the nonprofit "Steps 2 Hope," began fundraising events this summer to build a home for the couple by summer 2013.

While home over the next 10 days, Smith plans to speak at his family church, Covenant Presbyterian, and the chapel at his high school, Chattanooga Christian School.

The school will honor Smith at half-time during the homecoming football game tonight.