By Special Features Writer, Michael Isam
Special to Historic City News
“Homes For Our Troops” held their 3rd key-ceremony in St. Johns County since 2011 this month. The first was Marine Cpl. Tyler Southern; followed in 2012 with keys presented to GySGT John Hayes and his family, and on Saturday, they turned over keys to a new home to the Brandon Long family.
Despite the early rise in temperature, ballooning humidity, and mostly clear skies, nearly 100 well-wishers came to welcome the newest member of a small veteran community on Honey Branch Lane.
The welcoming committee for LCpl Brandon Long and family was already in place. Lead by Detachment #383 Marine Corps League of St. Augustine Color Guard, the Clay County Sheriff’s Office Pipes and Drums, and members of the St. Augustine Spanish Garrison Rifle Detail who stood at the ready, waiting for the familiar sound of escort sirens announcing the arrival of the guest of honor and his family.
Escorted by Rolling Thunder FL Chapter 4, Patriot Guard Riders, and members of the St. Johns County Sheriff Department motorcycle units, LCpl Long and his family were greeted by supporters bearing U. S. flags lining both side of the street.
LCpl Long was on his first deployment when he lost both of his legs in an IED blast in Sangin, Afghanistan on December 21, 2010, two days before the birth of his daughter, Claire.
Walking through an area comprised of nothing but river rocks, Long was on a foot patrol with the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, when he stepped on an IED resulting in multiple traumatic injuries. Over the next hour his squad fought to save his life during a series of multiple resuscitations. By the time he arrived at a local field hospital, Long had lost 98% of his blood volume.
Long was airlifted to Landstuhl, Germany then to Bethesda Naval Medical Center where he remained for 2 years enduring surgeries and rehabilitation before returning home to Indiana. Long and his wife, Nicole, are the proud parents of Claire who Long credits with getting him through his ordeal and on the road to recovery. She became his reason to push harder and be an involved parent.
Gina Colon, Community Outreach Coordinator for Homes For Our Troops, began the ceremonies with a welcome to the audience, and a special “Thank You” to all the volunteers who worked to make this day a reality.
Colon introduced Ms. Emily Gilliland who sang The National Anthem. Gilliland was quickly joined by members of the audience, each with hand over heart, or in the case of veterans giving a hand salute.
“We now have 166 homes in 39 states and more in the works,” said Colon. “We love the state of Florida, as do many of our veterans.”
Following remarks from Ron Berber, a Marine Corp 1st Lt. from 1961 to 1968, U.S. Congressman Ron DeSantis; State Senator John Thrasher; Col. Matthew Crabill, Commanding Officer of the Marine Support Facility on Blount Island; LCpl Long’s mother Lisa Long; and Larry Gill, HFOT Veteran Liaison.
With all the dignitaries present, the favorite speaker of the day was Long’s mother Lisa.
She began by telling her son, “You’re going to be embarrassed by these stories son, but paybacks are hell.” She then proceeded to tell stories of her daredevil son. “I received a call from a neighbor who told me “You might want to check on Brandon very quickly,” the neighbor said. “When I found him,” she said, “he had repositioned the family trampoline close to a building, climbed on the roof and jumped onto the trampoline to see how far he could launch himself.” “That was tame,” she added and proceeded to tell about a neighbors call informing her that Brandon was riding his bicycle around the roof.”
When came Long’s turn to speak, he focused upon the weight that had been lifted from him and his wife especially. “I can actually cook a meal for my family; I can enter and exit a bathroom without calling to Nicole to help me unstick my wheelchair.” “If I need help,” he continued, “I have two fantastic neighbors, Tyler and John, who understand this lifestyle and are there for physical and emotional support.”
“The people of St. Johns County and St. Augustine have to be the greatest people on earth,” said Long. “Everywhere we go, we are welcomed, and the smiles on people’s faces are genuine.” “I know they really mean it.” Long ended with “Thank you, Homes For Our Troops; Thank You St. Augustine.”
The assembly adjourned to the flagpole in front of the Long home where the HFOT flag was retired and replaced by ‘Old Glory’.
Long accepted a symbolic key from Gill, followed by the actual key which he promptly passed to his wife. On the count of “3”, the ribbon was cut and the Longs had an uninterrupted tour of their new home. Upon completion, the audience was invited to tour the home. Food and refreshments, provided by John and Sherri Cunningham of Ann O’Malley’s Irish Pub, was served following the cutting of the cake.