Wounded Marine follows heart, leaves Victoria

Gabe Semenza

Oct. 7, 2011 at 5:07 a.m.

Nobody close to Justin Rokohl seemed shocked upon learning the wounded Marine would leave Victoria for his home west of Corpus Christi.

In doing so, he passes on the offer by dozens of Crossroads residents who vowed to build him a free home here.

Rokohl left both legs in Afghanistan, as one friend said, and his heart in Orange Grove.

Rokohl, a 24-year-old double amputee, settled in Victoria last year after a tour in the Middle East and two years of physical therapy. A roadside bomb in 2008 erupted through the floor of Rokohl's Humvee - mangling his back, hips and legs in unfathomable ways.

He garnered the affection of hundreds of Crossroads residents who, upon learning his story, offered to donate time, money and materials to build his dream home outside the Victoria city limits.

Sarah Korczynski and Veronica McCants, a mother-daughter real estate team, spearheaded these efforts via the Texas Sentinel Foundation, a program with RE/MAX ties. The foundation helps those who suffer severe injuries while serving in the line of duty.

Work had already begun on preparing Rokohl's five-acre lot just south of the city. But life for the young veteran, as war proved, is certainly unpredictable.

First, he lost his Victoria-based job delivering tools and parts to oil fields across Texas. Because doctors removed one of his legs from above the knee, he could not maintain the commercial driver's license needed to operate the oversized work truck. His ability to maneuver a clutch was compromised, he said he was told.

Then, delays linked to government red tape brought work on his new home to a near halt. Each time local organizers took a step forward with paperwork or in planning, efforts were slowed by the inefficiencies of a massive federal office, they said.

Finally, Rokohl gave in to a feeling he'd held since all this attention first flooded him. As appreciative as he was for the outpouring of support, he knew he needed to be back home - close to friends, family and the rodeo arenas in which he still loves to ride.

"The home we were going to build in Victoria is still a long way from starting, and we needed a lot more money to cover the costs," Rokohl said. "I just didn't want to take any more money from anyone, or be part of another fundraiser. I volunteered for the military, and a lot of other guys have it worse than me."

Rokohl never felt comfortable accepting donations, he said, or the notion that he deserves a handout. He could live comfortably off his military disability payments, but he opts instead to work.

When organizers first approached him early last year with news he qualified for a new, free home, he told them politely to give it to someone else.

"I know he's more than grateful for all the support, but he doesn't like the spotlight," Jeff Rhoads, Rokohl's longtime close friend, said. "He always says he doesn't deserve any type of benefit from anybody."

Rhoads traveled in the Humvee behind Rokohl when the bomb propelled his friend through the gun turret, high into the air and onto the hoodless engine block. Rhoads held Rokohl's hand as night fell, as the pain and blood loss forced the wounded Marine into and out of consciousness.

Rhoads also re-bent Rokohl's mangled legs into place so he could fit his friend on the stretcher after the medics arrived in a helicopter.

"Moving to Orange Grove will be better for him in the long run," Rhoads said.

Local organizers spent countless hours raising money and filing paperwork to meet federal requirements for securing veterans' grants. Even so, no one - from the real estate professionals, merchants and tradespeople who offered to help - seems to begrudge Rokohl for his decision to return home.

"The only sad part is that he'll be in Orange Grove instead of here, and you can't argue with that," Korczynski said. "I love him, I really do. We've all gotten so attached to him."

All money donated to Rokohl is still accounted for and maintained by the Texas Sentinel Foundation, and will now go toward the home the Marine builds west of Corpus Christi, Korczynski said.

Much of the materials local merchants promised to donate will also end up in the project; Rokohl's lot will be sold, and the proceeds, too, will help pay for his new home.

That new home will sit on three acres, which his grandfather sold to him for $10 each. Rokohl, who has a new, good-paying job, hopes to break ground soon because he plans to get married in February.

"I just want everyone to know how grateful I am for their support," the Marine said. "I'm not mad at anyone, and I hope no one is mad at me. I'm doing great. I hope everyone understands that I just really needed to get back home."



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