HOLLY SPRINGS — When U.S. Army Cpl. Cody Stanton met a fellow disabled veteran handing out Valentine’s Day gifts over a year ago, he did not expect a new house to follow.
At the time, Stanton was recovering at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center from injuries sustained while deployed in Afghanistan. He lost both legs and two fingers on his left hand in an explosion.
On Thursday, the same disabled veteran that Stanton had met in the hospital, Marine Sgt. Carlos Evans, looked on as Stanton, now 21, received the keys to his new house in Holly Springs.
Operation: Coming Home, a local nonprofit that builds homes for injured Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, held a ceremony to present the keys and to honor Stanton, the fifth recipient of a “hero home.” Evans had been the third and initially connected Stanton to the program.
“It’s a huge weight lifted off of me,” Stanton said. “It’s one less thing I have to think about.”
Various speakers honored Stanton for his military service and his personal character. Some cried; others cracked jokes. Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison named Stanton a reserve Wake County deputy, leading many follow-up speakers to jokingly give their own title to Stanton. More serious awards were given, as well.
Stanton sat surrounded by family members and looking out into a crowd of both familiar and unfamiliar faces. Town officials, vendors involved in building the house, the N.C. State University dance team, the 11-year-old members of the West Raleigh baseball team and members of Stanton’s unit all looked back at him.
“Cody, houses and words cannot repay you and your family for your service,” Mayor Dick Sears said.
The ceremony ended with four parachutists, members of the All Veteran Parachute Team, landing next to Stanton’s new house and handing him his keys.
Originally from Raleigh, Stanton joined the Army at 18 as a military policeman and was unsure whether he would deploy. When he found out he was going to Afghanistan, he was excited.
Shortly after deployment in November 2011, Stanton went to Kandahar. He had been there only about a month when he was injured on a mission to secure weapons caches.
He had just helped a man who had stepped on an explosive when Stanton stepped on one, too.
“My first thought was who was hurt, who stepped on it, because I was sure it wasn’t me,” he said. “A 20-year-old thinks he’s invincible.”
Then he saw his squad leader running toward him. Even then, Stanton focused on calming those around him rather than on his own injury.
He learned the severity of his injuries several days later. It took even longer for him to realize the impact it would have on his life.
Stanton was moved from Afghanistan to Germany and then to Walter Reed. He will still be there until the fall, when he’ll move into the new house.
“This house will be just right for him,” said Nancy Stanton, his mother.
The house has many features that will assist Stanton in his day-to-day life, such as larger doorways, lower sinks and a stair lift.
“We want to create an environment where it’s his home and he’s comfortable in his house,” said Tim Minton, president of Operation: Coming Home.
The house is the first the organization has built in Holly Springs. Stanton also is the first Raleigh native to receive a house from the organization.
‘Cody’s our hero’
After Thursday’s ceremony, a few friends and family members lingered with Stanton in the house. One was Sgt. 1st Class Victor Hernandez, a member of Stanton’s unit who stood by his side as he underwent initial surgery in Afghanistan.
As Stanton showed his new bedroom to friends, Hernandez made sure to point out the SpongeBob SquarePants pillow, which Stanton’s unit had sent back home to him.
“You thought you were going to leave SpongeBob in Afghanistan, huh?” Hernandez joked.
Although Stanton had forgotten about the pillow, Hernandez had not.
After being at his friend’s bedside during surgery, Hernandez said seeing Stanton receive the house “meant everything” to him.
“It’s how the Army is. We never forget anybody,” Hernandez said. “Cody’s our hero.”