May 27, 2024

BOBBY BODY ARRIVED in the middle of seemingly nowhere in Michigan, a confused 10-year-old boy moved from the life he’d known and placed in a house across the street from a stretch of endless farmland.

He knew he wasn’t to blame for ending up here. His mother abandoned the family at a Texas bus stop when he was just 5. He says his father, who was in the Army, had been arrested, leaving Bobby and his sister without anyone to care for them.

Here, at least, he would be safe. The North Dakota House, a two-floor, partially red-brick dwelling on the sprawling campus of the VFW National Home in Eaton Rapids, Michigan, provided refuge for the children of military members no longer able to live with their parents. Bobby lived with up to seven other children and a set of adults who served as house parents. He grew up spending parts of his summers fishing in the campus lake, working on the Montana Farmstead — everything at the VFW National Home is named after the state chapter sponsoring it — cleaning pig pens and helping raise hogs and sheep.

“They’d take the pigs out and walk ’em around,” says Nancy Bowers, who ran the 4H Club when Bobby lived there. “And kind of practice what they need to do for the show.”

He went to a public high school, Eaton Rapids High, and fell in love with sports. While the VFW didn’t offer a true sense of home — a typical family structure didn’t really exist, kids moved around, and Bobby said discipline could be lax — but an old community center gym doubled as a wood-floored auditorium and provided a place to keep him busy.

“That was the only thing that I had,” Bobby recalls. “From thinking too much about, you know, all the negativity in my life.”

Memories can cloud after nearly 40 years, but Bobby Body can still close his eyes and picture the old gym and the lake on the north side of the VFW property. He just never could have imagined at the time how this place ultimately would shape the trajectory of his life, how it started him on a journey that potentially could land him on the biggest athletic stage in the world next summer representing the United States at the Paralympic Games in Paris. Yes, memories fade, people lose touch and life becomes more challenging with time, but Bobby Body still feels a fondness for this setting that, when he needed it most, became his home in the middle of Michigan.

It remains the longest place he has ever lived.

IT’S A PICTURESQUE morning on Lake Huron in northern Michigan as Bobby Body, 49, sits in his car waiting for a rep from the Jared Allen Homes for Wounded Warriors Foundation to give the signal. Wearing a red USA T-shirt, he drives down the street and turns left onto a driveway lined by small American flags. Friends, family and visitors cheer.

Parked in the middle of the driveway, Body looks up, then puts his head on the steering wheel, the emotions swelling. After decades of living in places where he didn’t want to fully unpack his things, he was about to see his dream home for the first time.

Before Body gets out of his car, he starts to cry.

“He finally got a home,” his wife, Erin, would say later. “Something that actually has his name on it, that’s his. That’s big at 40-something years old, for the first time ever.”

The crowd is full of people who know him, who see his friendly, compassionate side. His chesty, barrel laugh is infectious. His smile, welcoming. It’s a long way from the orphanage, where he said he was “not good with socializing and stuff like that.” Getting here has tested the limits of what a human can endure physically and emotionally. A mother leaving. A father jailed. Formative years in an orphanage. College. The Marines. A medical discharge. Living without a home. The attacks of 9/11. Another enlistment. An explosion.

He has lived through the choice to amputate part of his left leg, found a new purpose and learned how to help other veterans. He’s met a loving wife through a newfound passion for powerlifting and renewed his belief in how to live.

And now there is hope for a second chance to wear his country’s colors — not fatigues, but as the world’s No. 10 para powerlifter in his division trying to qualify for the Paralympics.

The positivity has carried Body here to this moment — and to this new, mortgage-free home in northern Michigan.

“Everybody has their choice to make,” Body says. “To live a good, positive life or a negative life.”

THE IDEA OF home had always eluded Body. Born into a military family, they’d moved often during his childhood. After his mother left the family — Body still doesn’t know why — they moved to Germany. Body has tried to find her but hasn’t spoken to or seen her since.

Life in Germany was strict. He says he wasn’t allowed to play, watch TV or have toys.

“I had to learn to be tough,” he says.

Body says his father was arrested and sent to prison — neither his father nor mother could be reached for this story, and military records requested were not available — and he and his sister were sent to the VFW home in 1984. After high school, he enrolled at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Michigan, where he studied criminal justice. He played rugby and was drawn to the military. His father had been in the Army, so that didn’t interest him. Instead, a close friend recruited for the Marines.

“I had no structure in my life. I had no discipline in my life,” Body says. “And even though I just finished college, I did not want to go to any type of police academy or anything like that. I was like, ‘Oh, I need something.’

“Or I felt I needed to do something where I felt like I belonged.”

The Marines sent him to San Diego, where he says he hurt his right knee on an obstacle course and received a medical discharge. After Germany and the cold of Michigan, the palm trees in Southern California intrigued him.

Body moved to Palm Springs, where he says he was briefly homeless, sleeping on the streets for a few weeks. He used a Greyhound bus station bathroom to wash his face, brush his teeth, shave and clean off his jeans. He’d pull on a polo, hang a washcloth on a nearby tree and try to find a job.

He says he brokered a deal with a hotel to water plants and clean the pool in exchange for a room. The owner occasionally provided a $5 bonus. He’d walk to a nearby church for baloney sandwiches and apples.

He worked other odd jobs and moved to San Francisco, where he lived with friends. Big cities, he learned, were not for him. Early on Sept. 11, 2001, he watched TV coverage of the terrorist attacks. Already flailing, calling this part of his life a “tough time,” he decided to re-enlist when he heard then-President George W. Bush say the United States would send troops to Iraq.

“I just felt obligated,” Body says. “I don’t want to hear about these, you know, 18, 19, 20-year-old kids getting killed.”

The Marines weren’t taking re-enlistees, though, so he drove back to Michigan hoping to find his old recruiter, but he had left. The office had a different idea: Join the Army National Guard.

Nearing age 30, he re-enlisted. Cleared from his prior knee injury, he went to basic training and then ended up where he was born, Fort Moore in Georgia, for infantry school. He went to Airborne school, received his unit and deployment orders to Iraq.

ON FEB. 12, 2006, IEDs hit the door of his Humvee, damaging his left arm and left leg. His driver, medic and gunner were all unconscious. Another Humvee pushed the damaged vehicle under a bridge for cover. Body realized part of his arm was dislocated and the ligaments, tendons and cartilage in his left arm were badly damaged.

“But at the same time,” Body says, “I’m like, I can’t walk, either. So for me, I was more concerned about walking than my arm.”

MRIs showed he needed surgery to fix his shoulder and arm, the first of 21 surgeries he would have after the explosion. Sent to the Naval Air Station in Jacksonville, Florida, doctors told Body there was enough damage to his left leg to end his infantry career. They offered a medical discharge. He refused.

The post-traumatic stress (PTS) was bad, and alcohol helped him sleep. One night after drinking, he says, he woke up in a ditch 10 miles off base in Fort Gordon, Georgia. A couple he remembers as Bill and Kathy found him, let him sleep it off at their home and took him back to base with the promise he’d get help.

Body met with the chaplain. He says he’s been sober since. He sees a PTS therapist, and nightmares come every January and February as the anniversary of the explosion nears.

“It’s very few far and in between that I have a pleasant dream,” Body says. “So it’s usually mayhem and death, but it is what it is. And I deal with it. I cope with it.”

While recovering from his shoulder surgeries, his leg worsened, forcing a series of surgeries. Body essentially hopped on his right leg until they told him he could no longer have a military career, shifting him to the Warrior Transition Unit before he recovered enough to be discharged in 2009 and return to Michigan.

He lived off his disability and benefits when he returned to Michigan, he says, then began helping veterans get their benefits, just like he’d fought for his. More surgeries piled up. In September 2013, meetings with doctors led to a choice: Surgery to insert a titanium rod from hip-to-ankle and never be able to bend his left leg again, or amputate the leg above the knee.

“There was no way, because trying to get in-and-out of a car, trying to go up any stairs,” Body says. “Trying, I mean, you can’t do anything.”

It was a choice, Body says, but then again it wasn’t. No matter what, amputation would be inevitable, he says, because “my body was rejecting the foreign material” from the previous surgeries.

AS SOON AS the wound healed, Body began prosthetic rehab three times a day at the VA hospital in Ann Arbor to re-learn how to walk. Parallel bars helped retrain his gait and fix his balance. Strength training helped redevelop muscles to support his new way of walking.

“He progressed so quickly from that because of his age,” says Marissa Demers, one of Body’s physical therapists. “His strength, his motivation and willingness to do everything.”

The first day Body walked, all the therapists watched. Demers says patients are motivated to get their lives back once they figure out how to use the prosthetic. From there, Body kept improving. He wanted to be home for Thanksgiving with family. Wanted to be functional. Wanted to be dad again.

He’d walk 200 feet down and back a corridor, then 500 feet away. He navigated obstacles, used weighted balls for balance and pulled Demers in a rolling chair down the hall. One of the last clearances required him to walk a ramp and climb stairs in a hospital parking garage.

Body’s positivity stood out. There weren’t bad days, just motivational ones. He constantly encouraged other patients.

The weekend before Thanksgiving, he says, he convinced VA employees to take him home to get his car. When Body was discharged two days before Thanksgiving, he drove from Ann Arbor to St. John’s and parked on the corner. He walked down the block and into the house, surprising his family.

“Got to the house and walked in and the kids were like, ‘What the…,'” Body says.

He was in so much pain he couldn’t wear his prosthetic for days after. But, he was home.

THE IRON HOUSE Fitness Center in St. John’s caters to veterans. Flags from every military branch hang on the wall. Gym owner Jon Draher calls it a safe space for vets to work out aggression and PTS.

After Body began lifting here, the owners asked if he ever considered powerlifting. He hadn’t. He was lifting heavy — one day he benched 315 pounds — without the typical leg drive.

“He learned from men and women that were already competitive, already competing at a pro national level,” Draher says. “And he just stuck with it.”

Draher’s then-wife taught him proper technique. He learned the differences between lifting a lot of reps and aiming for a one-rep max. He’d go home and study YouTube videos of powerlifters. Body went to his first meet and thought it was the coolest thing he’d ever seen. He won his first competition then qualified for nationals. Months later, he was lifting nearly 400 pounds and beating non-amputee competitors.

At his first national meet, in 2015, he won his division and eventually qualified for the world championships. The United States Paralympic Powerlifting coaches reached out and asked if he would compete for them, but he said no.

“I didn’t know what kind of numbers that these athletes were putting up,” he says.

For years, Body focused on competing against non-amputees, getting by on government checks and other jobs he picked up, including working with the Disabled American Veterans to help veterans receive benefits, becoming the organization’s Veteran of the Year in 2016. He gave motivational speeches, and people listened to his story.

And he kept powerlifting. It gave him the regimen he once had in the Armed Forces. He says it gave him purpose.

WITHOUT ERIN, Bobby Body might not have ended up on the road to Paris. He’d proposed in a Walmart parking lot and moved in with Erin at her home in Waterford, Michigan, training for meets in their small house with a makeshift gym in the garage.

She’s been his support system for the past few years, and encouraged him eventually to accept the U.S. Paralympic coaches’ offers and try out for the team.

At the UFC Performance Institute in Las Vegas, he met UFC Hall of Famer Forrest Griffin, who called Alex Karalexis, the executive director of the Jared Allen Homes for Wounded Warriors foundation. Karalexis asked Body if he was interested in them building him a home. Body, a devout Detroit Lions fan, knew Allen from his years as an NFL defensive end hounding his beloved Lions quarterbacks.

“It didn’t really sink in that it was going to be real until Jared Allen got on the call,” Body says. “And then I was like, ‘Oh my gosh. This is real.'”

Erin still didn’t believe it until they met their new realtor, Jen Martin, on a Zoom with Karalexis and started to plan for their dream home. Bobby wanted a pretty, but desolate and inaccessible lot. Erin wasn’t sold. Martin showed them a spot on the lake. It was cold and icy, so Bobby stayed in the car.

“We had to video everything for him,” Martin says. “So that he was able to see the beach and what the water looked like.”

Eventually he saw the trees, the water, the dunes.

“He didn’t want to come here,” Erin says. “I told him, ‘You want to come here.’ Because I had gone out past the tree line because it was all woods. And it just looked pretty magical.”

During planning stages, Karalexis surprised them with plans for an indoor, state-of-the-art home gym, as Body had committed to the U.S. Paralympic team. The foundation wanted him to have everything he needed to reach the Olympics.

BOBBY BODY RAISES the American flag in front of his new home. Karalexis makes a speech. Body clutches his son Jayden’s shoulder and puts his arm around him. This is the key ceremony, and Body’s eyes wander toward the black exterior of the house. Erin’s do, too. They keep hearing it: “Welcome home.”

“Every square inch of this home,” Karalexis says, “is designed for Bobby.”

They turn the doorknob. Erin cries. Jayden smiles. They walk room-to-room, seeing Lake Huron from their back porch. Body is awed. He grabs his chest lightly through their tour.

Inside, the ceilings arch high, and the cabinets jut at a level for Body to be able to reach in his wheelchair when he needs. The hallways are wide so he can maneuver to the gym just to the right of the entrance.

“Holy Toledo,” Body says.

Body’s gym in the Waterford house had beat-up equipment in a dusty garage. Behind a door in the new house, he sees panels of mirrors, rubber flooring, shelves of dumbbells, racks of weights with a “UFC” imprint in red — the MMA promotion helped donate money for the gym. His name is stenciled in red over black surfacing on one of the racks.

He suddenly feels the need to find his sister, who had flown in for the occasion. After the VFW home, they’d lost touch but had reconnected years ago and had grown close. Amid the crowd touring the house, they see each other in the primary bedroom’s ensuite. He hugs her.

There is so much to do. Movers are coming to the old home the next day. They have to pack. As they move into their new home, Body continues to prepare for competitions and, perhaps, Paris. There are moments it still doesn’t feel real. But for the first time in Bobby Body’s life, he has more than an apartment. More than a house. He has what he’s always been looking for.

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