Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Josh Caskey's home, in a suburban development in Cranberry, had seen better days when he and his family moved in this spring.
The front steps had sunk several inches since they were poured in 1979. The porch railing tilted and shook. The manual garage doors barely opened. And the backyard was a sloping wilderness that threatened to overrun the splintering playset his four children had inherited from the previous owners.
But that was before this week, when Sgt. Caskey, a 31-year-old injured veteran of two tours in Iraq, and his family returned from a donated trip to Nemacolin Woodlands Resort to find a peaceful and newly accessible haven for them all.
"This just means the world to me," said Sgt. Caskey, his voice cracking, as he repeatedly thanked the battalion of volunteers, both military and civilian, that had helped in the renovation and in Friday's welcome-home ceremonies. "Everybody looks great, looks real sharp, and the house looks damn good, it really does."
"Wait until you see the inside!" yelled Jim Eichenlaub, executive director of the Builders Association of Metropolitan Pittsburgh, which joined with the Pittsburgh Chapter of the National Football League Players Association to remodel Sgt. Caskey's home in a five-day "blitz improvement" that began Monday. The service project was part of a national charitable outreach effort, Touchdown for Homes, that the groups' parent organizations launched earlier this year to build or renovate homes for veterans and families in need.
As a result of this week's "blitz," Sgt. Caskey -- who is still recovering from a broken tailbone, embedded shrapnel, a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder he suffered from the explosion of an improvised explosive device in Iraq in 2007 -- walked up his front steps on Friday without tripping, at last. He held the door open for his 11-year-old daughter, Brianna, while from inside the house his wife, Kelly, and their relatives could be heard chortling, "Wow! Oh, my God!"
Inside, they marveled at the newly installed hardwood floors that would make stepping from the tiled kitchen into the living room easier and safer, the shiny stainless steel kitchen appliances and new wooden cabinets, the grab bars in the bathroom, the new downstairs shower and two bedrooms shared by the four children: newly decorated Steelers black and gold for the boys, 9-year-old Josh Jr. and 1-year-old Alexander Joseph, and a hot-pink princess zone for the girls, Brianna and 3-year-old Faith.
By the time they opened the sliding door to the backyard, they couldn't stop wiping away the tears as they explored a newly terraced, landscaped and furnished back yard, complete with gazebo, patio furniture, fountain, stainless steel grill, and steps leading up the hillside to where a fire pit and a rope swing promised late-night marshmallow roasts.
Kelly Caskey looked around her; her house to-do list had vanished.
"I don't have to worry about what needs to be done next," she said. "It's done, and now I can just enjoy it."
The Nemacolin mini-vacation was donated, along with many building supplies, by 84 Lumber Co. More than 100 individuals, including several of the Caskeys' neighbors and friends from church, local and national businesses and service organizations contributed money, time, food and supplies to the effort.
Among them were members of the Marine Corps, several of whom first volunteered to remodel the home and yard, then showed up on Friday to stand under the hot sun in their heavy dress blues as an honor guard.
"We came out and volunteered and sweated and dug and moved mulch and topsoil for the same reason as everyone else -- to help a Marine Corps family that has sacrificed a lot during their service, and since," said Maj. John Hunt, commanding officer of the First Marine Corps District's recruiting station in Pittsburgh.
Sgt. Caskey's parents both served in the Army, while his older brother, Jeremy, serves as an Air Force chaplain. His younger brother, Marine Corps Sgt. Joseph Caskey, was killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan in 2010.
Many more military veterans deserve similar help -- and the builders' association would like to do many more projects -- but it was difficult to find a local family willing and able to accept a remodel or new construction after the project was announced earlier this year, Mr. Eichenlaub said. Veterans must own their home to participate in the project, but many can't afford a mortgage or can't secure a loan, and must rent, he said. Others can't bring themselves to accept help.
"They're very proud," Mr. Eichenlaub said. "They always think someone else is more deserving."
Amy McConnell Schaarsmith: email@example.com or 412-263-1719. First Published August 25, 2012 4:00 AM