Samuel Shockley can’t believe his good fortune.
He’s grateful for friends who have lifted him on their backs in the woods so he could hunt and fish like he used to do.
The woman he met on a wild night at a Tacoma piano bar stuck with him through two Army combat deployments and two years of recovery at Walter Reed Military Medical Center.
And fast-acting teammates from Joint Base Lewis-McChord got him off the battlefield in Afghanistan almost instantly when a mine blasted away both of his legs, allowing him to live another day.
“Without those guys, without what they did, I wouldn’t be able to be here today,” he said.
On Saturday, new friends and old teammates gathered in Eatonville to thank the former staff sergeant for his sacrifice almost three years ago and to toast him for the grace he’s shown in his rehabilitation.
They celebrated him by launching a project that promises to make his life as a wounded veteran much easier. He’s getting a new, custom-built house through the nonprofit Homes for Our Troops.
It’ll give him the independence at home that’s he craved since he and his wife, Emely, left Walter Reed last year.
“It’s a life-changing event. It’s me being able to have my own ability in my own area that is adapted 100 percent to me — wider doors, wider hallways. I can actually get in the sink and do dishes,” Shockley, 27, said.
Eatonville, I have this feeling that this is going to be the community where I live the rest of my life.
He’s benefiting from a Massachusetts-based organization that has built 200 homes for wounded veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars since 2004. It finds properties for veterans wherever they want to live and then gives them a mortgage-free house adapted for their needs.
“We don’t consider it a charity. We consider it a moral obligation,” said Chris Mitchell, the nonprofit’s deputy director of corporate partnerships.
This weekend’s event was a ceremonial groundbreaking for the Shockley home, which should be finished in Eatonville early this summer.
They chose the site because it put them close to Emely’s family in East Tacoma but also got them away in the countryside where Samuel wanted to live.
He’s especially grateful that the one-story home will give Emely some assurance that he can take care of himself while she works as an X-ray technician. Normally, she keeps her phone close to her so she can check in on him throughout the day.
“The biggest thing I’m looking forward to is giving my wife some peace of mind,” he said. “When she leaves the home, she doesn’t have to worry about me.”
Shockley grew up in Ohio and moved to JBLM to serve as a combat engineer in its 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division. He deployed with the brigade’s 38th Engineer Company, a small unit trained to find buried bombs, on all three of its deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan since 2007.
Sgt. 1st Class Addison Yost, a close friend, said Shockley stood out as a fast-rising noncommissioned officer who put in long hours to take care of soldiers. When Yost fell into a depression, Shockley got his attention by encouraging him to “be resilient, never quit.”
They deployed to southern Afghanistan together in late 2012 for what became a fairly short, difficult mission during a period when the Army was rapidly drawing down its footprint in the war.
Yost comforted Shockley after Battle’s death. Shockley helped Yost move forward after a blast killed Sims inside Yost’s armored vehicle. Again, the friends encouraged each other to “be resilient” for the sake of others in their unit.
Then Shockley got hurt in March 2013. Yost spoke to Emely a few days later. He had a list of things he wanted to tell her, but he was speechless when he heard her voice.
“I leaned on the words her husband told me, and that was, ‘Be resilient,’ ” Yost said.
Now, years later, Yost says the Shockleys inspire him because of the way they’ve healed together.
“Not a day goes by that he doesn’t put everyone else’s needs before his own,” Yost said.
Shockley moved through his recovery at Walter Reed over about two years, learning to walk on prosthetic legs. Since the couple returned to Tacoma, he’s kept up with an aggressive exercise routine and sought opportunities to get outdoors. Friends have come away admiring his perseverance.
“He’s got this spirit, it’s contagious,” said Tyrone Harris of Puyallup, Shockley’s personal trainer. “Get to know this man and he will affect you.”
Both Shockleys teared up several times during the groundbreaking ceremony, especially during Yost’s remarks. They were joined by about 100 other people, most of them veterans, supporters of Homes for Our Troops or Eatonville residents who wanted to greet the couple.
“Everyone’s coming together for us, and they don’t even know us,” Emely said.
She and her husband said they “felt like the president” when they drove through Eatonville with escorts from the Patriot Guard Riders and Pierce County Sheriff’s Department. They’re looking forward to settling down after making one more move.
“How do I express my gratitude? They welcomed me with open arms,” Samuel Shockley said. “Eatonville, I have this feeling that this is going to be the community where I live the rest of my life.”