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'Military Makeover': Lifetime show to redo house of Strum veteran

A humble veteran wounded by a roadside bomb in the Iraq war is about to step into the spotlight when the “Military Makeover” reality TV show visits his hometown of Strum later this month.

Sgt. Steve Wojcik was selected by the Lifetime network show to receive a makeover of the home he and his family have owned since moving to Strum in 2010.

Cast and crew members, including longtime talk show host and 22-year military veteran Montel Williams and WWE professional wrestling star Lacey Evans, will be in Strum to complete the renovations from Monday, Sept. 23, until the “big reveal” at 4:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 3.

“The whole purpose of this is to stop using ‘thank you for your service’ as lip service and really applying truth to that and showing that you care,” Williams said. “We are offering deserving veterans a hand up, not a handout.”

Williams promised that the Wojciks’ outdated house at 136 W. Fir St. will be dramatically transformed during the show. The six episodes featuring the Wojciks are expected to air on Lifetime in November and December, with the first scheduled at 6:30 a.m. Friday, Nov. 8.

“When families finally get to see their houses, they are completely blown away, not just by the fact that they got new stuff, but by people coming together to show they really care,” Williams said.

Wojcik acknowledged being in disbelief since the family learned in January they had been selected for “Military Makeover,” which features four families a year.

“It’s extremely humbling and my gratitude is overwhelming,” said Wojcik, 43, a Wisconsin State Patrol officer since 2008. “There are obviously many more deserving veterans than me.”

Strum residents who know Wojcik, however, beg to differ.

Jerry Knudtson, senior vice commander of VFW Post 6550 in Strum, cited Wojcik’s military service and his family’s extensive community involvement in calling the Wojciks “very deserving of this honor.” Likewise, Strum’s village clerk, Michelle Loken, said the family is well known around town and highly deserving, adding, “I’m really honored to know them.”

Wounded on duty

Wojcik’s military resume speaks for itself, as he joined the U.S. Marine Corps right out of high school in 1994 and served for four years, then was inspired to enlist in the Army Reserve after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

During a deployment to Iraq, a vehicle in his fuel truck convoy was hit by a roadside bomb Sept. 6, 2004, near the southwest corner of Baghdad, killing one of his comrades and severely injuring another. After the convoy got rolling again, a second bomb exploded under the front passenger side tire of Wojcik’s truck, lifting the vehicle off the ground and leaving Wojcik with flash burns on his face and injuries to his back.

Despite multiple back surgeries, including spinal fusion, and surgeries on his knee and shoulder for other military-related injuries, Wojcik still endures chronic back pain.

“I thought the spinal fusion was supposed to cure it, but that hasn’t happened,” he said. “The pain is just something I deal with.”

Even the war injury, for which Wojcik was awarded the Purple Heart in 2012, didn’t stop the Marshfield native from serving 16 years in the Army Reserve.

“I just went over, did my job and came home,” he said, stressing that military families left behind make the real sacrifices when a service member deploys.

His wife, Terri, said the family had to make Steve Wojcik fill out the paperwork for the Purple Heart.

“He is a very, very humble soldier,” Terri Wojcik said.

Vacating their home

The Wojciks got a taste of what their “Military Makeover” experience will be like when co-host Art Edmond and designer Jennifer Bertrand visited them in Strum last weekend to check out the house and do some preliminary filming.

“I don’t think Strum is really fully prepared for what is going to happen here,” Steve Wojcik said.

Terri Wojcik and the couple’s three daughters — Alyca, 19, Amberlee, 16, and Alyson, 13 — are flying home today from a shopping spree at Simon Premium Outlets, one of the show’s many sponsors, in Norfolk, Va., where they were filmed calling Steve back in Strum.

“It is crazy, just absolutely crazy,” Terri Wojcik said of all that has transpired since a fellow state trooper nominated Steve for the show. “There’s a lot of ‘why us?’ “

The reality of the reality show will set in when they vacate their house the night before the “Military Makeover” occupation and their possessions are moved to a storage unit in Eau Claire. The family has chosen to spend that time at Crystal Lake Campground in Strum.

“We’re basically not allowed back into our house until they turn it back over to us,” Steve Wojcik said.

While the idea of giving control of their house to strangers is a bit unsettling, the Wojciks insisted they aren’t worried.

“We are a very go-with-the-flow-type family,” Terri Wojcik said. “Whatever we get we’ll be thankful for. We’re excited about it.”

Designer’s touch

Bertrand, who grew up in a military family and now operates her own design studio in Missouri, said it’s a joy to give something back to a “really nice family” like the Wojciks.

“I get to come in and be like Mary Poppins and add the happiness,” said Bertrand, herself a former winner of HGTV’s “Design Star” contest.

The Wojciks got to choose the color of new siding and share some ideas about their needs and tastes, but it’s Bertrand’s job to figure out how to redo the house.

“It will fit a small town in Wisconsin but still look like a designer did it. They’re going to catch grief because people will say, “Ooh, it’s so fancy now,’” Bertrand joked.

She aims to make a splash while still coming up with a design that is comfortable and inviting.

“Their basement is, no joke, a time capsule from the 1970s, and all the neighbors know it,” Bertrand said.

Terri chuckled at the mention of the basement — with its shag carpet on the walls, artificial grass on the floor and a hammock that Alyca sometimes uses as a guest bed when she goes home from Eau Claire, where she attends Chippewa Valley Technical College — as well as the kitchen’s original cabinets, complete with pink on the inside.

Bertrand left little doubt those features will disappear in the renovation and hinted that she plans a “nod to the Green Bay Packers” despite being a Kansas City Chiefs fan herself. But beyond that, she said, “People will have to watch the show to see what we do.”

Rapid redo

What is certain, however, is that the transformation will be remarkably fast, as the “big reveal” will come just 10 days after the crew descends on Strum.

Bertrand said she and construction manager Ryan Stanley will do whatever it takes to get the project done by the deadline, even if that means sleeping at the construction site.

“The paint is often still wet when we bring the family home,” Edmonds said. “We’re literally working right up until the last minute.”

Edmonds, who has been part of the show since it started about five years ago, said the addition of Williams a year ago took it to a new level because of his interviewing skills honed in 17 years of hosting “The Montel Williams Show.”

A key to the show’s success, Edmonds said, is the participation of the local and national companies that donate time and materials as well as residents who live in areas chosen for the show.

“People sometimes just show up with broom in hand and say, ‘I just want to help this family,’ “ he said.

Rachel Nowak, office manager at Trendstone in Eau Claire, said employees were happy to help when a representative of the show called and asked about the possibility.

Trendstone, one of several local companies chipping in, will receive a quartz countertop slab and then measure, cut and install it at no cost.

Representatives of the local VFW, American Legion, AmVets and Rolling Thunder all plan to show up with their colors at the home’s unveiling, Knudtson said, adding, “They are going to have quite a homecoming.”

The massive team effort is all aimed at giving back to a veteran who has given so much to his country.

“We can give Sgt. Wojcik a place where he can truly relax and feel good about coming home,” Williams said. “We want it to be a life-changing thing for him and his family.”

Most expensive egg in the world

My wife had done her research, and that research led us to an enchanted property outside of Iron River where a celebrated chicken-breeder preserves the genetic integrity of Icelandic landrace chickens (once almost extinct.) Why my wife pined for Icelandic chickens with such intensity, I could not say. Neither of us had ever seen one before. Without a great deal of fanfare, the breeder scooped 35 little chicks into our gigantic Tupperware bin, accepted our payment and bid us adieu.

We drove home that night choking on ammonia fumes as those little chicks filled that Tupperware with fragrant manure. Arriving home, we brought the chicks into a bathroom, turned on a vent, aimed a heat lamp at their little bodies and hoped for the best.

That was more than three months ago, and our flock has shrunk to 27 without a single egg being harvested.

In terms of economic boondoggles, this chicken experiment ranks high on my list of poor personal financial decisions. You see, after we arrived home with our 35 chirping chicks, we realized that we had no good coop to house them. Luckily for me, and those chickens, my beloved father-in-law, Jim, began construction of a coop which he neatly fit into one of the three homely pole buildings scattered around our property. This coop would have: a cement floor, electricity, running water and a rather large run defined by a tall wire fence. A chicken palace, really.

For weeks, Jim handed me a receipt from his latest run to a local hardware store: lumber, insulation, screws, wiring… The costs kept mounting and I could not help but think that the rest of the world raises chickens on a shoestring, or no budget at all. Our chickens were being treated like royalty.

I had thought chickens would act as our In-Sinkerator, vanishing our table scraps and subsisting on worms and blades of grass. And increasingly they have, growing more independent as foragers. Though, I am still making regular visits to area feed mills where I engage in long conversations about the protein content and components of various chicken feeds.

“Do you want organic feed?” some kindhearted mill employee will ask me.

“I don’t know,” I’ll say. “Maybe.”

“How do you feel about soybeans in their feed?”

“I’m not against it,” I’ll say. “Should I be?”

“What about fish? You think it affects the taste of their eggs?”

“I don’t know,” I’ll answer, “they haven’t produced a single egg, yet.”

Every day, I enter the coop, searching their nesting boxes and the hay bedding for an egg. Every day I am disappointed. People who know much more about chickens than I do assure me that eggs will indeed come, but right now, my morale is fairly low. I keep thinking of that first egg, of how much effort and how many resources have gone into it. I am afraid to admit that it truly is a rather absurd sum.

When that first egg arrives, I imagine it being the most expensive egg in the world. I imagine how I’ll carry it carefully, lovingly, into our kitchen, how I’ll cook it, how its taste will equal all of our chicken-related efforts, how it will be the tastiest egg in the world. My mouth waters thinking of that egg.

Sometimes a friend or family member will ask, “What are you going to do once those chickens start producing? That’s going to be a lot of eggs.”

“Maybe we’ll sell them,” I say. To be honest, I have difficulty imagining all these forthcoming eggs. It seems utterly unbelievable.

“How much would you charge for a dozen?”

“Probably about $100,” I’ll respond, half-joking.

Alright, maybe not $100, but like gardening, the costs aren’t exactly logical. The coop was expensive, feed is expensive and bedding isn’t cheap. But now that all their infrastructure is in place, our costs have plateaued. Sometimes I’m approached with another line of questioning:

“Do you think it’s all worth it?”

My answer so far is, a clear-eyed “yes.” I think despite the costs, this little experiment has been a success. Watching our two children muck out the coop brings me a great deal of pleasure, absolutely. And sometimes, in the cool of an evening, I will sit beside the chicken run with my wife and simply watch those beautifully colored and idiosyncratic birds. They are sort of fascinating.

I have also had the responsibility and the displeasure of dispatching sick or injured birds, which, ultimately, has given me greater respect for our farmers, and the very animals that become our food. What my family is doing is essentially a hobby, a lark. But for farmers around the world these issues are the difference between success and failure, life and death.

A hundred dollars for a dozen eggs? Of course not. But ultimately, the idea isn’t totally wrong. Too much of our food is way too cheap, and as a consequence we think nothing of what we eat. What ingredients are in a box of Cap’n Crunch? Where did those ingredients come from? Who grew those ingredients? What effort went into that product? Or your pizza? Your can of soda?

When that first egg does arrive, you better believe I’ll know where it came from.

Next Saturday: B.J. Hollars hopes the road rises to me you.