Volunteers coming together to help Afghanistan war veteran, family

Jason Smith, right, and National Guard Sgt. Andy Calfee walk through the parking lot before a motorcycle parade of veterans and supporters on April 24, 2015, at Camp Jordan in East Ridge, Tenn. Smith lost both of his legs in an IED explosion while serving in the U.S. Army in Afghanistan in 2012. Local volunteers will be building Smith and his wife a new home next week.

How to help:

The build is from today through May 8. General as well as skilled labor volunteers can help. Shifts are 7 a.m. to 3 p.m and 3-11 p.m. Register to volunteer, sponsor or donate at steps2hope.com/get-involved. Snack items (granola bars, cookies) and bottled water can be dropped off at the job site.

RINGGOLD, Ga. - Jason Smith doesn't like the spotlight. In fact, if the 29-year-old war veteran had his way, he'd fade into the background.

He doesn't talk much about his service or his sacrifice, and when he does, he refers to his time as an infantryman in the U.S. Army as "his job" and downplays the fact that he was blown apart by an IED in southern Afghanistan.

"People say, 'You're a hero,'" Smith said. "I'm not. I just had a bad day at work."

For most people, a bad day at work means tolerating an annoying co-worker or feeling undervalued by your superiors. Smith's bad day - July 25, 2012 - cost him both of his legs, two knuckles and the use of most of his right hand.

Directions to the build site:

From Chattanooga: Take the East Brainerd Road exit off I-75 N. From the intersection of East Brainerd and Ooltewah-Ringgold roads, continue two miles and turn right on London Lane. Go 1.5 miles and turn right on Salem Valley Road, then go 0.4 miles and look for the flagpole and Steps 2 Hope sign. Turn left at the flagpole on Saddle Road.From Ringgold: Go north on Cherokee Valley to East Brainerd Road, turn right (east) and follow rest of directions above.

Smith took what happened to him better than most, initially accepting it as more of an occupational hazard than a catastrophe. But over the next seven months of healing and rehabilitation (which included 25 surgeries on his hand alone), the severity of his injuries and the changes in his life going forward hit the Ringgold native.

"You don't think much about how much knees, toes and ankles go into your balance," Smith said. "I had to learn to use my back."

Depression set in. Smith lost himself in video games and junk food, and wouldn't leave his room at his parents' house. He knew he needed to make a change.

"I decided to put my legs on, and I haven't taken them off since," he said.

On his prosthetic legs, Smith started going to the gym every day, his "happy place" before - and after - his injuries.

"It's my therapy," he said. "I can control things in there."

He got himself down to a trim but strong 160 pounds. He fell in love with his best friend's sister, Lauren, a hairdresser. They were married last year and have a 5-month-old daughter, Lyla. Smith plans to enroll at Chattanooga State in the fall to be a physical therapy assistant.

The couple say they just want a normal life. They don't expect anything from anybody. They don't feel owed.

Others disagree.

Thousands, actually, including dozens who have come from all over the country to build a home in Ringgold for Jason, Lauren and Lyla in just over a week.

Jason and his family were chosen to be the recipients of the philanthropic efforts of two forces - Steps 2 Hope, a Chattanooga-based nonprofit started by local businessman Mark Wilson; and Mike Fitzpatrick, a Desert Storm veteran and retired firefighter from Lawrenceburg, Ky.

Jason's house will be the second build for Steps 2 Hope. In 2013, the organization built a home for Andrew Smith (no relation to Jason) and his wife, Tori. Andrew Smith, a graduate of Chattanooga Christian School and Lee University, lost his legs after triggering explosives while on foot patrol in Afghanistan in 2012.

Wilson and his son, David, started Steps 2 Hope after David lost the use of his legs for a year after his college was hit by a tornado in 2008.

photo Jason Smith holds his 5-month old daughter Lyla Jean with his wife, Lauren, before a motorcycle parade of veterans and supporters on April 24, 2015, at Camp Jordan in East Ridge, Tenn.

"We're grateful," Wilson said. "The Lord healed David far beyond what we imagined, so we want to help other people who have lost mobility."

Fitzpatrick isn't a nonprofit. He's one man, with a goal of building a house for at least one wounded veteran every year, through grassroots coalitions of veterans, firefighters and police officers he's met over the years. He said his work is "a calling."

"It's not a great thing that we're doing," Fitzpatrick said. "It's the only thing. The right thing."

Fitzpatrick heard about Jason through Andrew and Tori Smith. After meeting Jason for breakfast at IHOP last year, Fitzpatrick knew he had the right person for his next build, and set about putting his team together.

At the first planning meeting, it was Fitzpatrick and one other person. Now, nearly 50 firefighters, police officers, and ex-military from nine states are coming to work on Jason's home, among them a contingent of New York City firefighters (some of whom were first responders to the World Trade Center), and New Orleans-area firefighters Fitzpatrick met while working in the area after Hurricane Katrina.

"It's a cliche, but all of us, we like to say that we're 'paying it forward,'" Fitzpatrick said.

Fitzpatrick and Wilson say there will be upwards of a thousand volunteers a day at Jason's build site, working to accomplish in eight days what would normally take five months. In addition to the general contractor who's been hired to build the house, Wilson said there will be 500 employees of a subcontractor and almost 400 other volunteers at the site. He said corporations have stepped up too, with Shaw Industries, General Motors and General Electric donating materials, manpower and appliances. Local churches will be providing meals for the volunteers.

"It's a great picture of the human spirit at its finest, of a community coming together to help a guy who was dealt a really tough hand," Wilson said.

Initially, Jason and Lauren didn't know how to take the news that a bunch of people wanted to build them a house. They didn't feel they deserved it, and still don't.

"We didn't ask for this, they came to us," Lauren said. "We're prideful people."

Now, though, their excitement is growing.

Jason said he'll be at the build site every day, to shake the hand of every volunteer that wants to help him and his family.

"It's gonna be awesome," he said with a smile.

Contact staff writer Will Healey at whealey@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6731.