On Friday, May 19th, the community of Twelve Oaks welcomed a new, young family to their neighborhood in a rather unconventional way. Although families moving into the popular subdivision in Holly Springs are a common occurrence these days, the Rhymer family received the keys to their new home accompanied by the Patriot Guard, a wide selection of local and state officials, and a crowd of enthusiastic neighbors.
The first Holly Springs recipient of a grant from the national organization “Helping a Hero,” Zac Rhymer and his family have waited three years for this house to become a reality. From the day of his career-ending injury in 2013 until today, Zac has been slowly building a new life for himself, his wife Jillian, and their two young sons. Their new home in Twelve Oaks is a wonderful, major step in that journey and one that will make his future efforts much more manageable.
Msgt. Zac Rhymer is a career Air Force veteran who served six tours of duty in both Iraq and Afghanistan as a combat controller. Combat controllers are the backbone of military units – they are highly trained and physically fit members of the unit who organize actions in the field. In this role, Zac earned the coveted Air Force Cross in 2008 during a 6-hour firefight in which he saved the lives of an entire unit of Green Berets and took out 250 insurgents while suffering from a wound himself. Had he perished from that wound, the entire unit would probably have been lost. Zac became one of three Air Force Cross recipients from the war in Iraq, and the only one who didn’t receive it post-humously. There were 10 Silver Stars awarded after that one battle – the most ever given for one battle in any war! Zac is one of the most decorated veterans in the history of the Air Force, with three Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star as well.
Zac’s military story, however, didn’t end in 2008 with his injury and heroic actions. Deployed to Afghanistan in 2013 for a sixth tour of duty overseas, Zac was shot and lost the use of his left leg to that injury. The bullet shattered his femur where it connects to the hip and went through his body and out the back side, completely severing his sciatic nerve in the process. His girlfriend, Jillian, was flown to his side in Germany and stayed by his side for the first week of surgeries. “I don’t think I had even grasped the extent of the injury fully until I saw him,” she shares. “They placed several large screws and a plate in his leg, but the nerve damage was permanent and the pain was extreme.”
After a week in Germany, the Air Force flew them both to Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where they surgically connected the two ends of his sciatic nerve with a cadaver nerve graft. Although the surgery was experimental and the nerve has not regenerated, the procedure did reduce his pain levels “from a 10 down to about a 5 or 6.” Even after four years of therapy and recovery, Zac lives with constant pain from the injury and may eventually need hip replacement and/or amputation. Because of the bone injury, that leg is shorter than the other, and he has no control of his leg below the knee. Because of his commitment to therapy and recovery, it is sometimes hard to tell that he has an injury, Jillian explains, but “his injury is far worse than it appears. He puts on a brave face and doesn’t complain…. He couldn’t walk for 9 months after his injury, but now he works out almost every single day.”
When Zac retired, the Rhymers looked for a community to settle down in. Jillian’s dad had retired to North Carolina when she was younger, and retirement for the Rhymers had landed them in the Pinehurst area. Zac focused on his post-military career, attending Sandhills Community College, and Jillian began working with her dad in Cary. When they got the word that “Helping A Hero” had approved them for a grant to help them with upfitting a home, they focused on the Raleigh area where they could be closer to her job with easy access to Zac’s educational endeavors. They looked at a lot of communities on the west side of the Raleigh metro area, but when they drove through the Twelve Oaks community, they fell in love with the welcoming, inviting community and knew this is where they wanted to raise their boys.
“We selected the lot, the house plans, and did the whole build process ourselves,” Jillian explains, “but had a great consultant in Meredith Iler from Helping a Hero, who helped us through the unconventional build and all the accommodations we had to have to make Zac’s home life easier.” Helping a Hero is a national organization that provides the financial assistance to offset the cost of a new home and customize it for the specific injury, such as main floor master bedrooms, wider doorways, wheelchair accessibility, and special showers. “The home has the things he needs and makes many of the daily annoyances of living a thing of the past, and that is a wonderful thing,” says Jillian.
Along with the completion of the house came the recognition in the community of the significance of this particular project. The southwestern Wake County area is very supportive of its veteran residents, with Operation Coming Home awarding a number of homes to wounded veterans in surrounding communities. When the Today Show got wind of the grant award to Zac Rhymer and his family from Helping A Hero, especially in light of his military history, their interest shined a spotlight on the project and spurred an upswell in local activity to support the family as they readied to move into their new home. The Holly Springs Chamber of Commerce and the Holly Springs Rotary Club both rallied their troops to provide support to the family – the Chamber donated a welcome basket of gift cards and products from local businesses, and the Rotary Club raised funds for a Love Sack couch that will make it possible for Zac to sit and watch TV with his boys for the first time!
The Today Show filmed the May 19 event and showcased it on their Memorial Day program on May 29. The home is the fifth North Carolina home that Helping a Hero has assisted with, and the third in the Raleigh area. In 2014, Lt. Governor Dan Forest partnered with Helping a Hero in a “Nominate a Hero” promotion that identified Zac Rhymer as one of two decorated veterans to receive assistance through the program. Because of the Today Show taping schedule, Lt. Governor Forest was unable to attend the ceremony on May 19, but he was instrumental in getting this grant awarded and has supported the Helping a Hero organization throughout the build process for both young men.
“Rallying behind these veterans is so important,” Meredith Iler of Helping a Hero explains. “We are so proud of Zac for facing his challenges head-on and knowing exactly where he wants to go in life. We are very blessed to have leaders who stick it out and keep the battles overseas so they don’t come to our shores. Zac would have continued to do that job had he not become injured, and now that he is forced to rethink his professional goals and continue to be of service, he needs the support of his community to make that a reality.”
Zac graduated from Sandhills Community College in May and intends to attend UNC-Chapel Hill this Fall to complete his bachelor’s degree. His long-term goal is to become a physician’s assistant and work with veterans through the Veterans Administration, and he is well on his way! And as Jillian continues to unpack in their lovely new home, the Rhymer family is happily adjusting to life in Holly Springs and very thankful for the support of the community that has embraced them so completely.