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Veteran's family gets a home fit for a hero in Harnett County, N.C.

SPOUT SPRINGS, N.C. — Richie Chavis' dream home came with a nightmare cost.

Two years ago in Afghanistan, an explosion ripped away the Marine lance corporal's legs above the knees - and nearly took his life. On Monday, the 22-year-old Robeson County native and his family unlocked a specially built home in Lexington Plantation, just off N.C. 87 in western Harnett County.

The house was awarded to Chavis and his family by Operation Coming Home, a North Carolina group dedicated to helping wounded veterans make the transition to civilian life. His was the fourth "hero home" built in the state.

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"Amazing; just amazing," he said, rolling around a kitchen that included a microwave oven set at wheelchair height, a staircase equipped with a motorized chair and countless other features designed to make his life easier.

"It's so beautiful," said his wife, Laken McGirt. "Everything is wonderful."

More than 200 dignitaries and well-wishers milled about in the rooms and in the front yard. Smiles and hugs and hot dogs were shared. A high school band from Northwood Temple Academy played a blend of patriotic and seasonal songs.

It was a far different scene than the morning Chavis' life was forever changed two years ago.

Until he landed in Marine boot camp at Parris Island, S.C., Richie Chavis had never spent time outside Robeson County.

Chavis, the son of Merlinda and Richie Lee Chavis, was called "Junior" by his family. He was a homebody, a native of the Saddletree community.

"I never had much reason to be anywhere else," he said with a shrug.

While still a student at Lumberton High School, Chavis said, he and two buddies decided to join the military.

"I was thumbing through a magazine, and one of those pieces of paper fell out, you know?" he said.

The paper was a request for information on the Marine Corps.

"I just filled it out and mailed it in," he said. "About three weeks later, I got a knock on the door."

Chavis signed up at age 17. In the summer of 2009, after graduating from high school, he was in basic training.

He was sent to Helmand province in southwest Afghanistan. A year earlier, more than 4,000 Marines had pushed through the region, which had been a major Taliban stronghold.

Chavis was often part of a foot patrol in the area. About two months after arriving, just after Thanksgiving 2010, his unit was ordered to patrol a series of farm fields.

"The guy in front of me stepped down in the field," Chavis recalled. "Then I hopped down ... and immediately I'm rising back up."

Chavis had triggered an IED, or improvised explosive device. The explosion blew him several feet into the air. When the shock wore off, training kicked in.

"I knew the first thing to do was see what's what," he said. "I looked down. I couldn't see anything but a pool of blood. I reached down with my hand. I felt two femurs. That's when I knew I was out of it."

Medics stopped the blood flow, saving his life. "They called a bird in, and I was in the air within three minutes," Chavis said. "Then I was out.

"When I woke up, I was in the hospital in Germany."

After surgery and rest, Chavis was sent to Walter Reed Army Medical Center. "I spent more time there, than I did in the service," he joked.

He met Laken in 2011 while on a brief trip back home with family. Like Chavis, she grew up in Saddletree.

"We just clicked," she said. "You know, we grew up just a few miles apart, we went to Lumberton High School at the same time, but we never knew each other."

They were married in March.

A month later, the couple were told about a group of North Carolinians dedicated to helping wounded veterans. Operation Coming Home was a joint volunteer program of Raleigh area builders. Each year, the group chooses a veteran disabled while fighting in the Middle East.

Tim Minton, the foundation president, said the group strives to address the "hidden human cost" of the fighting.

"Most people think of the death toll of war," Minton said. "The number of severely injured soldiers is staggering. We have several volunteers and vendors who care deeply for them and want to help them transition to their new life.

"It's a way to thank them for helping secure the liberties we hold so dear."

Richie and Laken met foundation representatives and were told they might be called again.

In truth, the family was a perfect fit. After being released from Walter Reed, the family had been living in a single-wide mobile home in Saddletree, with none of the modifications for Chavis. There was no ramp to the door, and interior doors were too narrow for his wheelchair.

"It's been a challenge," he said. "We were so happy to hear from Operation Coming Home again. They asked if we could come to Raleigh and sign some papers."

Laken said the decision was a complete surprise.

"They told us the papers were part of the application process," she said. "Then when we got there, they took us into a room full of lights and balloons and said, 'You got the house!' It was wonderful. Everybody started crying."

The couple kept tabs on construction from the August groundbreaking but chose not to tour the home until it was finished. "We wanted it to be a surprise," Laken said.

They didn't see the interior until Monday after Lumbee cultural expert Reggie Brewer performed a traditional blessing for the house.

Five family generations rode with them for Monday's ceremony. They ranged from Chavis' 6-month-old daughter, Madeline, to 90-year-old great-grandmother Betty McGirt.

His military family, guys from Chavis' Marine unit at Camp Lejeune, were there, as well. They were joined by members of the Rolling Thunder veterans motorcycle group, who escorted the family to their new home.

The furniture had not arrived, but it was clear the family was staying.

"We'll get an air mattress and camp out," Laken said with a smile.

In the future, Chavis said he plans to study at Fayetteville Technical Community College, possibly for a degree in automotive mechanics.

He also plans to speak about the needs of disabled veterans.

"Never forget our troops," he said. "At Walter Reed, I saw so many people who were hurt, but the wounds weren't all physical.

"It's easy to see my injuries. But you don't have to be wounded to have scars."

jacobsc@fayobserver.com

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