TAMPA — Charlie Lemon maneuvered his wheelchair through his new home, taking in the expansive kitchen and living room, the well-appointed bedroom and den, the flat-screen televisions everywhere.
"This is mind-blowing,'' said the 30-year-old Army veteran, who lost his legs last year in combat in Iraq. "The fact that I can say I'm home and this is my home, that's the feeling that I never thought I would have.''
Escorted in VIP style by 10 police motorcycles, Lemon arrived to tour his home at 1922 W Gray St. in North Hyde Park for the first time Tuesday morning. He seemed surprised at the size of the crowd waiting to see him receive the gift — a mortgage-free home and lot — from local donors and Operation Finally Home, a Texas-based charity that builds homes for wounded veterans.
Lemon lost both legs at the upper thighs during an attack on his convoy on June 8, 2011. The explosion killed his best friend, Pfc. Matthew England of Missouri, who was driving the truck.
A marker dedicated to England's memory stands in the back yard of Lemon's new home. Framed photographs with his Army buddies adorn walls.
"Charlie's fine,'' said his mother, Cherl Towns of Haines City, talking about her son's adjustment to his new life.
"He just doesn't have legs. And actually, he does have legs, they just stand somewhere in the corner,'' she said. "He's much more comfortable in his wheelchair, 'cause he's kind of a hotshot'' and can move around faster.
Since his return, Lemon has become recertified as a scuba diver and has volunteered for Habitat for Humanity, getting out of his wheelchair and painting baseboards and fences. He also plays hockey and tennis in his wheelchair and surfs by doing a handstand on the board, "scaring his mother to death,'' Towns said.
Lemon, who grew up in Haines City but spent eight years in Tampa before joining the Army, thanked the volunteers, companies and organizations during a ceremony in his driveway. On hand were Tampa police Chief Jane Castor, a high-ranking Army chaplain, former pro football kickers Martin and Bill Gramatica, Tampa Bay Buccaneers fullback Erik Lorig and two Bucs cheerleaders.
"I want to thank you guys for coming out, and all the love and support I've had —'' Lemon stopped, choked up "— from all my friends and family from day one, really.''
Operation Finally Home partnered with the Gramaticas' charitable foundation and their building materials company, Gramatica SIPS, plus Sunstone Construction and Rent King, which furnished the house.
Daniel Vargas, executive director of Operation Finally Home, said the charity has built 50 homes for wounded veterans in the five years since its founding and is breaking ground today in St. Petersburg on a home for another veteran.
Martin Gramatica, a former Bucs player, said he and his brothers were at a flag football game for charity during the last Super Bowl when they started talking with Vargas and former soldier and motivational speaker J.R. Martinez, who had met Lemon and suggested that he would be a deserving recipient.
"I couldn't thank people enough for showing up, not just to see the home but to thank Charlie,'' said Gramatica.
"Whatever we build him is not enough to thank him for what he did for us.''
Philip Morgan can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3435.