BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — How does a grateful nation compensate a U.S. Marine who has lost both legs in combat? How does a community properly thank a hometown hero who has made such a profound and life-changing sacrifice?
The answer is, no one knows for sure. But that uncertainty doesn't stop them from trying.
On Friday, on the occasion of the nation's 238th birthday, the keys to a new home — built entirely from donations of cash, labor, materials and gratitude — were handed over to retired Marine Lance Cpl. Jeremiah Thein, his wife, Ashley, and their two young children.
Simply put, it was Bakersfield's way of saying thank you.
"It's a testament to how we feel as Americans," said Jim Ward, who, along with business partner Mike Alsup, were the general contractors for the project through their company, Northwest Builders.
"We are unable to make Jeremiah physically whole again," Ward said.
But through the gift of a beautiful new home — designed specifically to help Thein with the many challenges that lie ahead — Ward and scores of others who were involved in the effort hope the house will provide the family with comfort, security and a place for each member of the family to grow and be healthy, happy and productive.
Service to his country
Like hundreds of students who were part of Bakersfield High School's class of 2009, Jeremiah Thein wore a blue cap and gown during commencement ceremonies held in the spring of that year.
Before the year was done, he would change from Driller blue to the desert-camouflage uniform of a U.S. Marine.
"I wanted to do something that would define me differently from everyone else," he said of his decision to enlist in the Marine Corps.
By February 2012, Thein had been deployed to Helmand province in Afghanistan where Taliban insurgents were still active — and deadly.
Back home, Ashley was expecting a son.
On April 20, Thein was working with other men in his squad to clear a building that had been used previously as a vantage point from which to fire upon American patrols.
At one point, he was next to the combat engineer when Thein stepped on what he believes was the pressure plate of an improvised explosive device, or IED.
"I heard it," he remembered. "I knew immediately it was an IED."
Thein reacted by pushing the engineer into a shallow ditch — even as the bomb exploded. Fortunately, the other man was unhurt.
The concussion sent Thein airborne, but he remained conscious. And he was horrified by what he saw.
As a result of the explosion, both of the young man's legs were lost. The months and years that followed have been about healing, therapy and learning how to walk using prosthetic legs. Now 23, Thein beat all expectations with the speed at which he made the transition.
In addition, he's regained partial use of his left arm, which was also badly injured in the blast.
He has no intention of feeling sorry for himself, Thein said. There's too much left to live for.
Making the house a home
Reached earlier this week, both Jeremiah and Ashley were thankful and anticipating Friday's event at the home site.
"We're excited and nervous all at the same time," Ashley said.
Nervous because neither she nor her husband have seen the finished home. They didn't quite know what to expect — until it was there in front of them Friday.
Wendy Porter, the founder and director of Wounded Heroes Fund of Kern County, the nonprofit organization that coordinated and raised money for the project, said the house is amazing.
Four bedrooms, two baths, wider hallways and doorways for easy wheelchair use, a roll-in shower and closet, and roll-under sinks, range top and barbecue grill — all to allow easy use by Thein.
"Swimming pools are very therapeutic, so we had to have a pool," she said. "Jeremiah will have complete access, property line to property line."
The custom home, in the 4800 block of Cimarron Ridge Drive, near Stine Road in southwest Bakersfield, is only a few doors down from the home of Wesley Leon-Barrientos, another double amputee who received a home through Wounded Heroes years ago.
"Wesley is definitely my go-to guy," Thein said. "When I need to know what works, I call Wesley."
The two earlier homes for Leon-Barrientos and a third wounded veteran, Evan Morgan, were built through the auspices of Homes for our Troops, a nationwide nonprofit that has spearheaded the construction of dozens of houses across the country for wounded war veterans.
But Porter's organization spearheaded this latest effort, with help from many in the community. Chevron, for example, donated $10,000 to the project, and Chevron employees donated many work hours. Home Depot helped, as did the contractors and subcontractors who often donated labor or materials.
"It's the community," Porter said. "The community did this."
Wounded Heroes spends approximately $11,000 to $15,000 per month helping countless veterans in Kern County. This latest project is just the biggest and most visible.
Thein, who as a child spent many days after school at the Police Activities League in east Bakersfield, said the organization was instrumental in keeping him out of gang life. Now he hopes he can find an appropriate role with that organization.
"I want to give the knowledge I have gained back to those kids," he said.