From the time she learned that her husband had lost his legs in an explosion in Afghanistan's Helmand province until noon Saturday, Morgan Kessler felt as though her world was turning in circles.
"It never felt real," she said.
But moments before she entered her new home, built by Homes for Our Troops, she felt she finally saw a straight path ahead.
"It is so much weight lifted off our shoulders," she said, crying. "Our lives will finally start over. Thank you so, so, so, so much."
A small crowd of friends, fellow Marines, county officials and volunteers from Homes for Our Troops huddled under a tent Saturday morning as snow fell around the house. Set along a narrow, winding country road, the home is the newest of 163 the Massachusetts nonprofit has designed and built for veterans who have suffered serious injuries during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Cpl. Jeffrey Kessler, 25, was severely wounded in July 2011 when he stepped on an explosive device. He lost both legs above the knee and had partial amputations of some of the fingers on his right hand. He was airlifted first to Germany and then four days later to Walter Reed National Medical Center in Bethesda, where his wife and two sons met him.
The Kesslers met in high school, and by the time he was on his third deployment, the second in Afghanistan, the family had moved into a house in North Carolina where they expected to stay awhile.
Jeffrey said he was two weeks away from re-enlisting when he was wounded, but afterward decided to leave the military and "take care of my family as best I could." Morgan moved to Bethesda, and the family lived in a small apartment while her husband continued to heal. She said it was very difficult to live in an apartment that was not properly outfitted for someone in a wheelchair.
The family then moved into a relative's house in Cecil County, where Jeffrey was constantly running over toys in his wheelchair or nicking his fingers as he tried to maneuver through doorways that were too narrow.
Standing before the crowd in the tent, he struggled to express his thoughts.
"It is a beautiful home. I can't thank you enough. ... Every day is going to be a challenge for me," he said, but added that his life will get better. "No more getting out of my chair to crawl around the house."
Looking at the faces in the crowd, he said, "I am more nervous now than I was in combat. ... Let's get this thing going."
After a ribbon-cutting, the family entered their new home, the two boys rushing into and around their bedrooms. Morgan said the family "stalked" the house during the eight-month construction phase, checking in once a week to see the progress.
She had the family possessions packed in a truck and planned to move in after everyone left the ceremony. Boxes might be everywhere this weekend, Jeffrey said, but his wife would have the place whipped into shape in a week. Morgan stays at home with the children, and Jeffrey works as a mechanic fixing military vehicles at the Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground.
The house has wood floors for easy mobility and a kitchen with a sink and stove that are lower than usual and accessible for a wheelchair to roll under. The microwave is only a couple of feet above the floor, and the cabinets have devices that lower the shelves a few feet so that Jeffrey will be able to reach things.
Every door can be opened electronically. A wheelchair can be rolled into the shower, and the master bath is outfitted with a therapy bathtub that is helpful after a day of wearing prosthetic limbs, said Tim McHale, president and CEO of Homes for Our Troops.
The nonprofit budgets about $430,000 for each house, though the figure varies depending on the land and construction costs where they are built, McHale said. Most houses share a similar one-story design, adapted to the local architecture and weather. Seven have been built in Maryland.
Corporations such as Armstrong, Kohler and Whirlpool make large contributions, but children who hold fundraisers to donate $100 are just as important, McHale said.
"We do not see this as a gift of charity," McHale said. "We see this as an act of love and respect."