The black limousine was greeted with thunderous applause and salutes as it crawled through the parking lot of Greenlawn Memorial Park. Inside, Marine Lt. James Byler, seriously wounded last year in Afghanistan, looked on in awe as neighbors, friends and countless strangers waved American flags and shouted, "Welcome home."
A hometown hero had returned.
More than 150 residents turned out at the start of the Memorial Day weekend Saturday at the Tri-Village Little League field to honor one of their own.
Byler, an infantry platoon leader, lost both legs after stepping onto a bomb in the Northern Helmand Province. He now walks using prosthetic legs and a cane.
The 25-year-old Huntington High School graduate and Purdue University alum was presented with a plaque and a flag pin. He also threw the ceremonial first pitch of the weekend's Little League games.
"It's just so humbling for me," said the soft-spoken Byler after spending 30 minutes signing autographs for youngsters and offering hugs to military brethren. "To see all this is just amazing."
Byler stood only once during the ceremony -- lifting himself out of his wheelchair for the Pledge of Allegiance.
Bittersweet day for mom
His mother, Janet, said the day was bittersweet. "I know what he's endured to get labeled a hometown hero," she said. "But he's so strong, and he's pulled us through."
Military service runs in the Byler family. James' older brother, John, an Army captain, served two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan and will deploy there again next year.
John plans to use his brother for emotional support. "You can't not feel that you have something more behind you," he said at the ceremony.
Organizers of yesterday's event, which included dozens of raffles, hoped to raise $10,000. The money will go toward renovating the Byler family's Colonial home in Huntington to make it more accessible for James. A first-floor bedroom will be built by extending the garage; a wheelchair ramp must be constructed and bathrooms retrofitted to become handicapped-accessible.
The project, through the nonprofit Building Homes for Heroes, is expected to cost $300,000. Through several local events, along with corporate and individual donations, the group has raised $50,000. More fundraising events are scheduled throughout the summer, and construction is expected to start in September.
Rehab is continuing
"James selflessly put himself in harm's way," said Huntington Councilman Mark Mayoka, who helped organize the event. "And we are forever grateful for his sacrifice."
Byler's journey, not unlike those of countless wounded veterans, has been one of immeasurable pain and small steps of healing. He was in Afghanistan only one month when the bomb exploded. Byler's legs were amputated above the knee and he also lost both pinkie fingers.
After nearly 20 surgeries to his legs, hands and ears to address hearing loss, Byler appears to have turned the corner.
He recently walked a mile on a treadmill, has begun playing the guitar again and is planning to enroll in graduate school to earn an MBA.
James' heart, however, remains with soldiers fighting overseas. "I don't have any regrets," he said. "It was a privilege to serve, and if I could, I would still be there."
HOW TO HELP
Donations to help renovate a home for Lt. James Byler can be made by mailing checks to:
Building Homes for Heroes
65 Roosevelt Ave., Suite 105
Valley Stream, NY 11581
(Indicate that donation is for Lt. James Byler)
Donations can also be made by calling 516-684-9220 or at buildinghomesforheroes.org/donation
MEMORIAL DAY EVENTS
Amityville. Parade begins at Broadway Triangle gazebo, 9:30 a.m.
Baldwin. Parade begins on Grand Avenue and Linden Street to Silverlake Park, 9:30 a.m., 516-623-6295.
Bay Shore. Parade starts at 10 a.m. at Lanier Lane/Main Street and proceeds to Oakwood Cemetery. Memorial services at 8:30 a.m. at Bay Shore LIRR station, 631-665-5946.
Bayville. Parade begins at village hall, down School Street onto Bayville Avenue and to Soundside Beach, 1 p.m., 516-628-1285.
Bethpage. Parade begins at Central and Park avenues, ends at Bethpage Community Park, Stewart and Cherry avenues, 10 a.m.
Blue Point. Parade begins on Blue Point Avenue from Middle Road to Blue Point Fire Department, 11 a.m., 631-363-6310.
Bohemia. Parade begins at Hubal Street and Ocean Avenue to firehouse on Pearl Street, 10 a.m.
Bridgehampton. Service at the war memorial on Montauk Highway, 9 a.m.
Brookhaven. Parade begins at Bellport High School, onto Beaver Dam Road, to South Country Road, north to Fireplace Neck Road and Gillespie Path for ceremony, 9 a.m.
Calverton. Service at 1 p.m., Calverton National Cemetery, 631-727-5410.
Center Moriches. Parade begins at Lake Avenue and Main Street, east to Mount Pleasant Cemetery for ceremony, 9 a.m.
Centerport. Parade begins at Harrison Drive to Park Circle, 10:30 a.m., 631-351-3012.
Central Islip. Parade proceeds up Carleton Avenue from Irving Street and ends with ceremony at Veterans Memorial at Anthony Alfano School, 10 a.m., 631-234-5440.
Commack. Parade from Jericho Turnpike and Larkfield Road, east to Cannon Park at Jericho and Veterans Memorial Highway, 10 a.m., 631-368-9463.
East Hampton. Parade starts at Guild Hall to Hook Mill; ceremony takes place at 9 a.m. at main beach, parade at 10:30, free.
East Islip. Parade begins at Main Street and Greenwood to town hall, 9 a.m., 631-273-3974.
East Meadow. Parade begins at East Meadow High School, ends at Veterans Memorial Park at Prospect and East Meadow avenues, 10 a.m., 516-359-4269.
East Northport. Parade from Clay Pitts and Larkfield Roads north to Pulaski Road to John Walsh Memorial Park adjacent to East Northport Library, 12:15 p.m.
East Norwich. Parade begins at Walnut Avenue and Route 106 and ends at fire department, 900 Oyster Bay Rd., 9 a.m.
East Rockaway. Parade begins at 164 Main St., to East Rockaway Village Hall, 10 a.m., 516-887-8170.
East Setauket. Parade begins at Memorial Park, then on Main Street to Route 25A to East Setauket Memorial Park, 10 a.m., 631-751-5541.
Farmingville. Reading of names at Vietnam Memorial, Bald Hill; rain location is Chalet at Bald Hill Ampitheater; 5 p.m., 631-751-1813.
Floral Park. Parade begins on Elizabeth Street, to Memorial Park for ceremonies; rain location is Our Lady of Victory School; 10 a.m.
Freeport. Parade begins at South Brookside Avenue, concludes with wreath-laying at library, 10 a.m.
Garden City. Parade begins on Cherry Valley Avenue at 10th Street, to the middle school at Cherry Valley and Stewart avenues for ceremony, 10 a.m.
Glen Cove. Parade begins at Monument Park, 11 a.m.
Glenwood Landing. Parade begins at fire station 1 on Grove Street, ends at fire station 2 on Glen Head Road, 9 a.m.
Great Neck. Parade begins at Susquehanna Avenue and Middleneck Road to Veterans Memorial at village green, 9:30 a.m., 516-466-2199.
Greenlawn.> Parade begins at East Maple Road, south on Broadway to Memorial Park at Pulaski and Broadway, 9 a.m., 631-351-3012.
Greenport. Parade begins at Adams Street behind the arcade store to the railroad dock by the ferry, 8 a.m.
Hicksville. Parade begins at Sears on North Broadway to Hicksville Middle School on Fourth Street, 9 a.m., 516-933-6445.
Holbrook. Parade goes south on Main Street from Holbrook Bagel Shopping Center, west on Furrows Road, south on Grundy Avenue to Alex Diguardia Memorial, 10:30 a.m., 631-471-2725.
Huntington. Parade goes north on New York Avenue from Big H shopping center and ends on Main Street at reviewing stand, 11:30 a.m., 631-351-3012.
Kings Park. Parade, sponsored by American Legion Post 944, begins at RJO School, Old Dock Road and Church Street, proceeds west on Old Dock Road, east on Main Street to Veterans Plaza at corner of Church Street and Route 25A for flag ceremonies, 9 a.m., 631-269-4140.
Levittown. Parade begins at Island Trees Middle School, west down Hempstead Turnpike to Levittown Library, 10 a.m.
Locust Valley. Parade begins at 280 Forest Ave., ends at athletic field on Bayville Road, 9 a.m.
Long Beach. Parade starts at Ohio Avenue and Beach Street, ends at Kennedy Plaza in front of Long Beach City Hall, 9:30 a.m., 516-889-7516.
Massapequa Park. Parade begins on Front Street, to Park Boulevard, Clark Boulevard and Broadway, to Klestinec Park, for wreath-laying ceremony, 10 a.m.
Mastic Beach. Parade begins at Neighborhood and Commack roads, east to Mastic Beach Road, west to Washington Road, 11 a.m.
Medford. Parade begins at school on Tremont Avenue, north on Route 112 to Medford Memorial Park, 11 a.m.
Merrick. Parade starts at Veterans Plaza between Merrick and Brooklyn avenues, north on Merrick to Veterans Monument at Lee Avenue for ceremony, 9:30 a.m., 516-521-6989.
Mineola. Parade starts at Wilson Park, west on Westbury Avenue, north on Roslyn Road and west on Jericho Turnpike. In event of rain, ceremony at Mineola Village Community Center, 11 a.m., 516-747-5291.
Montauk. Parade starts at Montauk post office, then west to Second House Road, noon.
Mount Sinai. Display of Old Glory, state, territory and local flags with educational signs, sponsored by Volunteers of the Heritage Trust, 9 a.m.-5 p.m., North Shore Heritage Park, County Road 83 and Route 25A, 631-509-0882.
North Haven. Service at village hall, 11:45 a.m.
Northport. Parade begins on north end of Laurel Avenue, proceeds to harbor, then to village park, 9:30 a.m., 631-261-6242.
Orient Point. Parade begins at 7:30 a.m. at the firehouse, 2300 Main Rd.
Plainview. Parade begins at Old Country Road, east to Plainview Community Park on Washington Avenue for ceremony, 9:30 a.m., 516-931-7030.
Port Jefferson. Service begins at Veterans Memorial Park across from village hall, Port Jefferson Harbor, 9 a.m., 631-473-9774.
Port Washington. Parade and ceremony begins on Main Street, 10 a.m., 516-944-9151.
Riverhead. Parade begins on Pulaski Street and Osbourne Avenue, 10 a.m.
Rockville Centre. Parade begins on Maple Avenue, to Veterans Memorial Park on Oceanside Road for ceremonies, 10 a.m.
Sayville. Parade along Main Street from Handsome Avenue to Lincoln Avenue, 9 a.m.
Seaford. Parade begins at Verity Plaza, north on Washington Avenue, ends at Four Chaplains Monument, memorial services follow, 9:30 a.m., 516-785-9429.
Smithtown. Parade begins at Singer Lane, west on Main Street to town hall, ceremony follows, noon.
Southampton. Parade and service begins 10:45 a.m. at First Presbyterian Church, 2 S. Main St., down Jobs Lane to Agawam Park, Pond Lane, for service at 11 a.m., 631-283-1623.
Southold. Parade starts at American Legion Hall on Wickham Avenue, 10 a.m.
St. James. Parade and services start at Woodland and Lake avenues, north on Lake to St. James Elementary School for services, 10 a.m.
Stony Brook. Parade begins at Stony Brook Shopping Center, east on Main Street to Veterans Memorial Park, 10 a.m.
Valley Stream. Parade begins at Rockaway Parkway and Wheeler Avenue, ending at Veterans Monument at Hicks and Valley Stream boulevards, 9:30 a.m.
Wantagh. Parade begins at Beltagh and Wantagh avenues, ending at American Legion Post 1273, 3484 Park Ave, 10 a.m.
West Babylon. Parade starts at Arnold Avenue and Route 109, proceeds to American Legion Hall Post 1634, 10 Bruce St., 9:30 a.m.
Westhampton. Memorial at cemetery, 11 a.m.
West Hempstead. Parade begins at Nassau Boulevard and Hempstead Avenue, along Hempstead Avenue to Roosevelt Boulevard, ends with ceremony at Echo Park, 10 a.m.