By Jennifer Franke
Tech Sgt. Joe Wilkinson made his grand entrance on a back-hoe Tuesday to ceremoniously knock down a tree to begin clearing the site where his new "smart home" will be built.
The Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation and the Gary Sinise Foundation teamed up to begin the "Building for America's Bravest" program which will officially "break ground" on a new home for Wilkinson and his family this week.
Building for America's Bravest has built homes across the country for military servicemen and women who have been severely injured in Iraq or Afghanistan.
"It's unbelievable," Wilkinson said. "We're one step closer to making this happen."
Wilkinson, who joined the U.S. Air Force in 1997, was forced to medically retire in 2009. He suffers from degenerative nerve damage, otherwise known as Gulf War Syndrome, and is paralyzed from the waist down after being exposed to toxic chemicals during his tours of duty in Iraq.
Over the past few years, Wilkinson, a father of three, has been through medical and financial struggles due to his illness. But thanks to the support of family, friends, and the community, he and his family will receive a 2,500 sq. foot "smart home" with four bedrooms and three bathrooms that will feature the latest hi-tech equipment.
"It's the least we can do," announced Assemblyman Michael Cusick, who is on the Board of the Tunnel to Towers Foundation and served as emcee for the ceremonial groundbreaking.
After Wilkinson made his arrival, followed by his family, the ceremony took off with speeches from various dignitaries.
Rensselaer County Executive Kathy Jimino thanked Wilkinson for "stepping up to help ensure the quality of life."
U.S. Rep. Chris Gibson, Sen. Roy McDonald, and Assemblyman Steve McLaughlin each expressed his thanks to Wilkinson for his heroism and how it was a pleasure to be a part of the ceremony.