ST. PETERSBURG — The young man in blue jeans and a green polo turned the shiny new door handle and pushed. He limped inside and, for the first time, his cane clacked against the hardwood floor.
Retired Army Sgt. Charles "Clay" Claybaker let go of a long breath, as if he'd held it for hours.
"Oh my God," he said, beaming. His wife's eyes welled. They moved down the hallway and into the kitchen, where cameras clicked and TV cameras rolled. The couple peered up at the vaulted ceilings, over the dark wood cabinets, across the granite countertops.
All of it was theirs.
In April 2010, on a night mission with the 75th Ranger Regiment in Afghanistan, an Air Force Osprey crashed at 90 mph. Three people were killed and 16, including Clay, were wounded. He broke or shattered bones in his back and legs, dislocated his hip and suffered a traumatic brain injury.
On Saturday, the charity Building Homes for Heroes gave Clay, 29, and his wife, Kandice, 28, their new home in St. Petersburg. It's one of 17 the nonprofit will provide wounded veterans this year.
Earlier that morning, hundreds had crowded into the neighborhood, awaiting the couple's arrival. Just before 10:30, a police siren whaled from the distant west on 62nd Avenue S. A procession, led by a kilted bagpiper, rolled past more than 170 American flags that lined the freshly cut lawns along the route. Behind a vintage fire truck packed with flag-wavers, Clay and Kandice sat, grinning, in the back of black Rolls Royce.
A banner inscribed with bright red letters hung over the garage: "WELCOME HOME!"
They emerged from the car to cheers and whistles and a spectacle of patriotism. An Army and an American flag hung high from a pole near the front door. Under a tent, a red, white and blue cake waited to be sliced. One man, his eyes tearing as he photographed the Claybakers, told a friend he wished he heard about more news like this.
After a National Guard member sang the national anthem and a Girl Scout sang "God Bless America," Building Homes for Heroes founder Andrew Pujol explained to the crowd that next year his organization plans to give away 25 homes — five of which will be built from the ground up for veterans with major disabilities.
The rest (like the Claybakers' home) will be donated by JPMorgan Chase. In total, Chase has provided 42 houses since the nonprofit was founded in 2006.
"We are no longer just a charity," Pujol said. "We are becoming a movement."
Finally, after speeches and applause, the couple was allowed inside.
Clay and Kandice both grew up in the area and met here as teenagers. He entered the military at 22 and was deployed five times. He retired last year and plans to get a degree in business. Maybe, Clay said, he'll work for a charity one day.
Terry Montgomery of Sun Bay Construction worked hundreds of hours to complete the house.
It underwent $200,000 in renovations and includes three bedrooms, a sunroom and a screened-in back patio. A fountain in the lake behind the house should help Clay with the tinnitus he's suffered from since the crash.
So, what's the first thing he intended to do after moving in?
"Honestly, I'm probably going to go fishing," he said, motioning to the lake. "I'm a hillbilly like that."
John Woodrow Cox can be reached at [email protected]