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Soldier Gets Surprise Of A Lifetime With H-E-B Smart Home

Because he gave of himself in service to his country, H-E-B and Operation Finally Home are giving something back.

23-year-old Army Specialist Michael Crawford found out at a special surprise ceremony that he and his fiancé will receive a mortgage-free smart home to accommodate his needs as a wounded warrior.

The anticipation brewed before he arrived with workers busy putting the finishing touches on the event. H-E-B partners passed out American flags while sound checks were done.

As Crawford arrived for the event, people lined either side of the H-E-B Market at Stone Oak entrance, holding flags. Workers closed the doors, and when Crawford appeared from the parking lot, in his wheelchair, the doors opened and people yelled, "Surprise!"

Credit Ryan Loyd / TPR News
TPR News
Army Specialist Crawford did not expect to receive a smart home when he arrived at H-E-B Wednesday. He was coming to the store, he thought, for a second interview for the home.

Crawford's little brother pushed his big brother, with fiancé Loren Cowan walking beside the veteran of the Afghanistan war.

On stage, a range of people were ready to greet him. They began with this announcement from an H-E-B partner: "You have been selected to receive a one-of-a-kind, custom built, mortgage-free smart home!"

He sat as tears filled his eyes and emotion overcame his face. Words could not express what this gift would mean to his family.

The only phrase he could utter when given the microphone was this: "I don't even know where to begin." He paused to swallow the emotion. His joy spread like a wildfire in the middle of the walkway of the H-E-B store. People couldn't help but feel the warmth of the moment in their throats.

"Other than, thank you," he finally said.

Crawford's surprise is no shock. He thought he was coming to the store for a second interview for the home.

Cowan also didn't know. She said she was helping him prep in the car on the ride over, asking him questions so he'd be ready with great answers.

The smart home is the first-of-its-kind endeavor for H-E-B, whose architects will work on designing it to fit Crawford's needs specifically.

Bill Triplett, senior vice president for strategic design at H-E-B, said the house is in the early stages of planning. He will meet with Crawford to find out what his needs are. Neither of his legs are functional; one completely, and the other only a little bit.

Crawford was wounded in Afghanistan after an explosive device sent his multi-ton armored vehicle 15 feet into the air. That was in December 2011.

"One of the things we plan to do beyond just making the home what we describe as 'barrier free,' we also plan to incorporate a number of devices in the home that allow technology to play a role in helping Michael do the things that allow him to be more independent in living within the home," said Triplett.

Things like robotics and apps will help Crawford gain his independence back. Currently, he lives in a handicap-accessible apartment just north of downtown San Antonio. But he admitted it's not very accommodating for him as he struggles to perform everyday functions.

"I mean, they deem it handicap accessible but it's not handicap accessible by any means," said Crawford.

Cowan doesn't live with Crawford. She is attending college in Belton, Texas, a town outside Temple, so she affirmed that Crawford doesn't get any help. Aside from his puppy, he's on his own, she said.

Asked what the home means to them, Cowan said it will help her fiancé in the recovery process.

"It's really important for him to do therapy at home, not just the three times a week that he goes, and so he can't do that and so his progression is kind of halted because he's not able to do that at home. So this house would give him everything because he would be able to do his walker and his exercises and his therapy," she said.

Cowan only met Crawford two months before his life-changing injuries. It may have changed the direction for other couples. But not them.

Cowan said she gets asked all the time why she remained with Crawford. For her, it never crossed her mind to leave. She became a fast new family member, meeting her future in-laws at the hospital. Finding out Crawford was hurt was difficult.

"Especially when you're just the girlfriend, the Army doesn't contact you, and so I actually learned on Facebook because his parents lived in Washington state so I learned through Facebook, his dad messaged me," she said.

Like other soldiers, Crawford doesn't think he's deserving of something like this.

"Someone out there is more in need of the home than yourself," he said. "That's how I feel about it. Getting out, seeing there's people with one limb or two limbs. I got all four, granted half of them don't work. It's definitely humbling to know that you were the picked candidate."

They say home is where the heart is. There is sure to be plenty of love poured into the smart home as the groups figure out what the home will look like and what it will come equipped with.

Ryan Loyd was Texas Public Radio's city beat and political reporter. He left the organization in December, 2014.