Last month, the family-owned Long Island landscape design company Above All Masonry announced the launch of their first Welcome Home project. This annual community service program coordinates several area service providers and merchants to donate a landscaping makeover—completely free-of-charge—to a deserving Long Island family.
Today, Above All Masonry is proud to introduce the first Welcome Home recipients, Long Island veteran Jacob and his fiancee, Leah. We are honored to work with such an inspiring couple, and cannot wait to unveil their new backyard on Veterans Day.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself, and what led you to join the military?
Jacob: I was born and raised in southern Texas, the middle of three children. I was born to medical missionaries who worked six months of every year in rural Mexico to take care of the native population that did not have access to medicine. Due to their dedication to their work, I spent much of my childhood with various caretakers in different homes. I went on to Asbury College in Kentucky where I obtained my bachelors degree in broadcast communications, and found a strong interest in the film industry and directing. I chased this dream to California and got a job in the industry. Soon thereafter felt unfulfilled. I wanted to BE the part, not play the part.
I enlisted in the Army in 1992 at the age of 23 while working in California. Duke Vincent, an executive producer I met on a show I had worked on, was a former Ranger in Vietnam. He was very influential and helped me find a path as a Ranger in Ranger Battalion, and I was off on my own journey.
What were your deployment experiences like?
After 9/11, the primary areas of war were Iraq and Afghanistan. I deployed to Iraq during the invasion (AKA the liberation) in 2003. As the war intensified, the focus shifted to Afghanistan and other countries. I would rotate between Iraq and Afghanistan, and other high-threat places. My deployment schedule was three to four months deployed, then about three weeks home, then repeat. I did this for years, until the war zone felt more like “home.”
My experience was very intense. At the beginning, it was like the Wild West. We were trailblazers in a new war, and had to try to instill order and structure to something that was out of control. It was a very non-linear war. We had to learn and learn by our mistakes. Unfortunately, the mistakes were the lives of our men.
How did your injury occur, and what was (or is) the recovery process like?
Jacob: My injuries are too numerous to count. I sustained all in combat. The minor ones were the fixable ones:the fractures, the ligament tears, etc. I had a few head injuries that have left me with permanent vertigo and hearing deficiencies. All this, I have managed to live with and work through everyday.
My most severe injury, however, is the one that is not overtly evident on the outside; the one that leaves psychological scars instead of physical ones. This is PTSD. You are so involved, so focused, so fatigued and stressed, that you do not even feel this injury until it makes you feel it. After 20 years in war zones, it took me retiring and stepping away to even see the extent of this injury.
What was the most difficult part of being away from your family?
Jacob: I have two sisters, and due to our parents’ missionary life, we’re very close and have always relied on each other. My older sister is a psychologist in Germany, and works with families coping with their loved ones’ deployments and returning from deployment. My younger sister lives in Texas and is a modern dance choreographer. Both are married with three children.
Being away from loved ones is never easy; however, my family was always supportive of my dreams and goals, and understanding of my passion and my mission. That made it easier to do my job and stay focused. I was never told not to go, never told to come home sooner… my family allowed me to fly without restrictions.
And what about Leah? How did you meet?
Jacob: When I was stationed in and deploying from DC, I was doing intermittent work in New York between deployments, which led me to move to Long Beach/East Atlantic Beach. As fate would have it, my rental was upstairs from Leah and her many animals. She’s a dedicated veterinarian, and now my fiancee.
During one deployment in Afghanistan, I was injured from a nearby explosion and needed surgery. The rehab and recovery meant that for five months, I would be at home in Long Island—the longest period of time I would spend in the U.S. for many years. I could not drive, and could barely move. I didn’t know how, what, and where to function in this culture. Leah became my primary caretaker. Despite her exceptionally busy life as a vet, she took it upon herself to nurse and nurture me during my recovery, and fully supported me returning to action at a pace I wasn’t sure could sustain a relationship.
To my good fortune, she was as dedicated, passionate, and driven in her profession as I was, and never asked me to slow down or stop. She never asked for anything, yet she comforted me through every devastating death, accompanied me to every funeral and every memorial, always knowing that I could be next. We learned to live in the moment, take nothing for granted and appreciate every rare moment that we had together.
I knew then that I could never be without her. Right before a potentially very dangerous deployment, I tattooed her as an angel on my arm and proposed to her.
What was it like for Leah during your deployment?
Leah: They say it’s really hard when a loved one goes off to war. For me, this was all I knew in our relationship. I met Jake knowing this would be our life.
Jake was gone for three-quarters of every year and accepting that was a part of loving him. His job and his passion for his job were who he was, and I loved who he was. I knew there was a very real possibility that one day the worst fear could be a reality, yet, there was no other way.
With that mindset, it made it easier. The heavy truth and the actual hard part was the aftermath, the homecoming, the re-acclimation.
What was your homecoming like?
Jacob: I finally retuned permanently to the US when I retired in 2013. There was no grand homecoming, no fanfare. Just a quiet “thank you”, and I retired. A hug and a whisper in my ear from higher-ups that they really didn’t think I would make it out alive.
How did (and does) your injury and recovery affect your family’s daily life?
Leah has had to make adjustments in life for me. I am not able to do things as fast or as often as I would like. I am constantly in pain from the numerous injuries sustained.
She never gets irritated or shows frustration. When I need to slow down or rest, or not do whatever it might be, she is always loving and accepting of my limitations… which made it easier for me to get over feeling sorry for myself and letting survivor guilt affect my daily life.
Leah: I am just happy and grateful that we get to enter into this unknown territory of what we call “real people life”, or “domestic bliss” together. We both have committed so much energy and time to our jobs that neither of us has ever taken the time to appreciate what it is like to come home to someone every night, be together on the weekends, have hobbies and activities, help out around the community.
So, as slow and dizzy and impaired as Jake sees himself, I just see the man I love here to walk this unchartered path and see the light at the end of the tunnel. I am thankful to walk that path with him…even if we walk it slowly and take long breaks!
Tell us a little bit about your home itself, and how you came to live there.
Jacob: The home that Leah and I met in was a two-story house in Long Beach/East Atlantic Beach. She was renting the bottom floor and I was renting the top floor when we met. As time went on and our relationship progressed, I was back and forth so much and still stationed out of DC, so we moved in together on the bottom floor. I was only there minimally between deployments, then in late August 2012, I was back from a deployment and had to be hospitalized for a few weeks. I had just gotten out of the hospital right before Sandy hit.
We had a lot of other things going on and probably did not take it as seriously as we should have. Nonetheless, we packed up our cats and dogs and evacuated to Leah’s boss’s home in Valley Stream. It was well over a week before we could get back into Long Beach to assess the damage, when we did, we found our bottom floor of the house completely destroyed. It had to be gutted, and we lost everything in the house and garage.
We lived at Leah’s boss’s home for six months. They were wonderful and helped to get us back on our feet. Within this time, I retired. Since we could imagine living in no other place, with the help of a Veteran’s Loan, we purchased our current home and came back to the barrier island.
What is your yard like now?
Jacob: Our yard is a mess. We use it for storage and don’t really go out to the back yard. It is a real eye-sore and quite embarrassing. We say it is akin to the show Sanford and Son. We did put a patch of grass back there to let the dogs run around, but that little patch was soon piled with old pipes and painting supplies as we did small repairs to our house.
What made you interested in participating in the Welcome Home project?
Jacob: We are not ones to ask for help. So when I was contacted by Hope for Warriors, I spoke to Leah and we both agreed it would be not only be a learning experience but a wonderful fun experience. We were shocked by the offer and still feel it is a dream.
What are you looking forward to about having a landscaping remodel?
Jacob: After we moved in, we sustained some water damage to the house and also had to redo the plumbing; our priority has been necessities, not pleasure, so the backyard has gone untouched. However, we love sitting outside together on the porch. We grill all our meals outside all year round and both of our families live out of state, so we have lots of visitors. So this is so perfect and we are both thrilled!
What are the things you’d most like to change about your yard?
Jacob: We would like to be able to go into the back and relax. To be proud to entertain when family come over to visit. To have a private place to turn off, sit, talk and unwind.
A lot of veterans have different feelings surrounding Veteran’s Day—how do you feel about the holiday?
Jacob: I have only been retired for a year. It has always been a workday for me, so I am looking forward to celebrating this day as a civilian. I still feel the pain of loss from war, yet, it is important to remember, to celebrate those that have given all they had.
Thanks to our partners in this special project for helping give Jacob and Leah the backyard they deserve: Designing With Elements of Bohemia, NY for providing design services; Unilock of Brewster, NY for donating pavers and wall stones; MGO Stone of Islandia, NY for donating lava stone; Garden Dept of Deer Park for donating the plantings; Astro Masonry & Supply of Deer Park for providing masonry materials; and Kichler for donating lighting fixtures.