#075: John Hemeon, commander of the Lakes Region Island X-4 Seabees, takes some notes for a project to put a handrail outside the Laconia home of Sue Smith, who is a double amputee. It's just the first of an ambitious list of projects the Seabees hope to accomplish for Smith, a nurse and the widow of a Navy veteran.
LACONIA - They have served their country around the world as naval construction engineers, in wartime and in peace.
Now a group of New Hampshire Seabees is bringing its "can do" attitude to make life a little easier for the widow of one of their own.
Susan Smith is a retired nurse, mother and grandmother, the widow of a Navy veteran - and a double amputee.
Smith has seen a lot of loss in her 63 years. Her father died when she was a baby, her brother died at the age of 14, and she lost her mother when she was seven months pregnant with her first child.
In 1997, her husband of 20 years, Ken Smith, died of a heart attack.
Then, three years ago, she suffered a rare medical condition, heparin-induced thrombocytopenia, which nearly killed her and resulted in the amputation of both legs above the knees.
Smith has two prosthetic limbs. She had to leave her nursing job at Lakes Region General Hospital that she loved, but she plans to remain active in her church and volunteer work.
"I want to have a life," she said. "I don't want to just sit in the chair. I'm doing the best I can."
Getting around the charming, two-story home where she and her husband raised their two daughters is not easy for someone with prosthetic limbs. The doorways are narrow, the staircases dangerously steep, and the walkways outside are uneven and broken in spots.
But Smith is not someone who has ever asked for help.
Enter Tom Tessier, a financial planner from Nashua and a passionate advocate for his fellow veterans. He's been involved with the Veterans Count project that assists veterans and their families in the Nashua area.
Smith's sister-in-law had mentioned Smith to Tessier and said she could use some help, so he visited her at home about a year ago. "She's the real deal," he concluded.
And he knew just whom to ask for assistance.
Created during World War II, the Seabees are the construction branch of the U.S. Navy; they include mechanics, plumbers, steelworkers, electricians, engineers and equipment operators.
The New Hampshire chapter of Navy Seabee Veterans of America, known as "Island X-4," has about 75 members.
The Seabees' motto is "Can Do!" And the New Hampshire guys plan to do as much as they can to make Smith's home more accessible, safe and comfortable.
On their list: insulating the basement, reinforcing staircases and railings, and making the tiny bathroom and kitchen more accessible for her.
Looking for projects
John Hemeon of Rumney, commander of Island X-4, said the group is always looking for service projects. They previously built a gazebo at the New Hampshire Veterans Home in Tilton, where the group meets the last Tuesday of each month.
Hemeon was an equipment operator in the Navy from 1955 to 1959; he served in Puerto Rico and Antarctica, building and supplying bases.
Ray Vercoe of Laconia, the group's secretary, was a carpenter in the Seabees. After three tours in Vietnam and tours in Cuba and Spain, he returned home to run his own construction business for 37 years.
On Friday, the two Seabees were at Smith's home, taking measurements and making notes. And a five-man crew arrived first thing Saturday to start insulating the basement and building a grab bar to help Smith get from her driveway to her front steps.
Tessier plans to raise money for the big projects that the Seabees can't do by themselves. If they can raise $25,000, they hope to put a new roof on Smith's home. But Hemeon said, "We're going to do as much as we can ourselves."
Smith's younger daughter, Josie, has moved back home and helps her mother with household chores. But Smith is fiercely determined to be independent.
She manages to get down her steep basement stairs to use the treadmill or ride her exercise bike for 45 minutes every day. "It hurts, but I do it," she said.
"They didn't expect me to live, and now look! I'm riding my bike!"
She laughs about the times she's gotten stuck somewhere and had to wait for Josie to rescue her - like the time her legs fell off, stranding her on the exercise bike.
How does Smith keep her sense of humor? She points upward. "He gave me one," she said.
Her strong faith has gotten her through all the adversity in her life, Smith said. After her first medical crisis, a pulmonary embolism that nearly killed her, she said, "I was putting myself in God's hands. I knew he was going to take care of me."
When her medical condition worsened, she spent three months at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, where doctors tried to bust up numerous clots and save her legs. "I told the surgeon, 'Nurses need feet.'"
They finally had to amputate to save her life, but Smith has never lost her faith in God. "And if this was what He had planned for my life, He'd give me the grace to get through it."
"He always puts these wonderful people in my life," she said.
And now, she said, beaming at Tessier, Vercoe and Hemeon, "He brings me these wonderful veterans and these Seabees."
Smith said the hardest part has been giving up nursing. She can see people going to work at the hospital from her home.
"You don't just lose your legs. You lose your income. Being a nurse, that was my vocation, not just a job. It's very difficult."
Tessier, an Air Force veteran who did six tours in Vietnam, said Smith has been an "inspiration" to him and the others. He tried to get her assistance through the V.A. system and Veterans Count, but she didn't qualify.
"Here's someone who needs help, doesn't ask for it and can't get it," he said.
So it was up to the Seabees to be Smith's white knights. "We don't ride horses. We ride bulldozers," Vercoe said with a grin.
Smith said having the Seabees come to her assistance is "like having Ken around."
"I feel his presence," she said. "To have these wonderful men in my life ... what a gift."
Contributions to the Seabees' project can be sent to:
Seabees Helping Hands Fund
c/o Ray G. Vercoe
267 Gilford Ave.
Laconia, NH 03246