He arrived at his Holbrook home Saturday via a parade that swept him there from Long Island MacArthur Airport, a smiling soldier who waved from a vintage Jeep and who was mobbed by thousands of neighbors, friends and total strangers.
Army Cpl. Christopher Levi, who promised that he would learn to walk again after losing both legs in a Baghdad bomb attack last year, climbed from the Jeep on prosthetic limbs, then thanked the crowd for their outpouring of support.
"It's almost to the point of being totally overwhelming," said Levi, a member of the 10th Mountain Division, who arrived home for the first time since the bombing. "It's so great to finally be able to come home. I don't think I could be any happier without crying."
Levi, 26, had both legs amputated above the knee during a St. Patrick's Day 2008 attack, when a shaped-charge explosive shattered the Humvee in which he was riding through Baghdad's infamous Sadr City neighborhood. Part of a bone in his right hand also was blown off during the incident while he was holding a radio to his ear.
He has spent more than a year at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, in Washington, D.C., healing from his wounds, undergoing corrective surgeries, and acquainting himself with the nuances of balance and endurance needed to get around on knees, shins and feet crafted from metal and plastic.
While he was away, volunteers organized by members of the Holbrook Fire Department built a handicapped-accessible apartment in the lower level of his parents' home.
Donations ranging from lumber to labor helped pay the estimated $150,000 value of the renovation, which included a new kitchen, a widened bathroom, and a lounge area complete with flat panel TV, surround sound and a video intercom. The bedroom was wired with remote switches so he can turn out the lights once he sits on his bed and removes his prosthetic legs.
"This is awesome," Levi said. "I don't think I'm ever moving out."
"Next year, Super Bowl at your house," said Mike Barhold, Holbrook fire commissioner, who did carpentry during the renovation.
Levi is among the 33,084 U.S. troops who the Department of Defense categorized as of last week as having sustained battlefield wounds in Iraq or Afghanistan since late 2001. That data exclude military personnel sent back to the United States because of muscle tears, injured joints or other injuries not inflicted by an enemy.
Levi, who estimates that his medical care will cost the government several million dollars, joins a growing wave of veterans who for the rest of their lives will need often costly rehabilitative care, including medical treatment, physical therapy and replacement prosthetics. More than 860 U.S. troops who served in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts have had at least one limb amputated.
Even now, Levi will return to Walter Reed in three weeks for more care, including additional surgery to increase movement in his mangled right hand. He is expected to receive a medical discharge from the military in about a year.
Friends and relatives say he has remained upbeat, despite occasional emotional setbacks.
Saturday, Levi described a flashback he encountered while doing physical therapy at Walter Reed several months ago. He said he imagined he was back in the Humvee with his legs - severed and bleeding - strewn about. He calmed himself by counting aloud until the image went away.
Levi said the outpouring of support from across Long Island - neighbors helped serve hot dogs at a spontaneous block party outside his house, a stranger pulled a floral lei from her neck and strung it around his as he arrived home - reminded him of the hometown values that helped persuade him to join the military.
"Wherever I've traveled, I've always told people what a wonderful place Holbrook is," Levi said. "This is what I was fighting for."