On a rainy Monday afternoon, the buzz of air-powered tools rattled through the garage at CSC Lifts, Liners, and Accessories. The experienced hands of Darrell Carmena applied just the right pressure to make the tools sing. It was a song he has played since he left the US Air Force in 1974.
During the Vietnam era, Carmena re-skinned damaged aircraft with shiny new aluminum. These days, he turns small trucks into monsters. Carmena said the Ford F-350 on his rack that day is for a very special person. When he is finished, it will be a king of the mud pit.
"This is top dog," Carmena said. "No doubt. This is the man of men."
It's a man of men for a petite lady. With auburn hair, bright green eyes and a beguiling smile that lights up her living room, Ashley Lacey looks like anything but a monster truck driver. However, get her talking about mud and her inner tomboy roars through.
"I actually grew up with it," she explained. "Being from Michigan, there wasn't much else to do."
With uncles and family who took home countless mud-dappled trophies, Ashley said she was destined for the mud life. And, it is a life she introduced to her husband. Ashley's husband, Sgt. First Class William Kelly Lacey, took his first ride through the mud last summer via Skype. At the time, he was deployed as a mechanic for a Special Forces unit in Afghanistan. It was his fifth deployment in 10 years.
"They call it a gauntlet, when you do five deployments. And then you're done after that; no more deployments," Ashley said.
Army life is something Ashley knows all too well. She and Kelly met when they were deployed with separate units in Afghanistan back in 2008. He was rescuing her after her vehicle hit an improvised explosive device. They married a year later. When their daughter, Lily (now three years old), was born, Ashley left the service. Sgt. Lacey made it his career.
The truck makeover is a homecoming gift of sorts. While he supervises the project, Chris Wagley, co-owner of CSC, keeps Ashley posted of the week-long effort with photos he takes through a plastic bag. He does not want to ruin the surprise. Inside his shop, the lift has taken on a life of its own since the day Ashley first began ordering the parts. The one thing Ashley could not decide on was the rims. So, Wagely suggested he start the order and the build. While his crews worked, Ashley could bring in Sgt. Lacey to make the final decision on the wheels.
"She told me her husband had passed away in Afghanistan on January 4," Wagley said.
It was early on a Saturday morning when Afghan insurgents breached the main and secondary gates in Sgt. Lacey's compound. He was one of the first responders. Ashley tries to explain what she has learned about that day, as any soldier would, but the emotion is too much. Just one month after losing her husband, the nerves are still raw and she has to stop to brush away the tears.
"He took a group of soldiers to a fighting position at the front gate. They said he personally took down three insurgents that were wearing suicide vests. They had gotten seven meters within the perimeter, into the camp. He killed them before they had a chance to detonate their vests," she said.
According to Army accounts, if those vests had detonated, it would have been a catastrophic kill by the enemy. Sgt. Lacey saved the lives of all 55 soldiers in the camp. With that threat neutralized, he moved his men to better defend the gate.
"They said they saw him fall. They thought he had tripped," Ashley stated as she dabbed a tear from her cheek.
But unfortunately, Sgt. Lacey had not tripped. He had been fatally wounded by a rocket-propelled grenade. He was just 10 days short of returning home.
"By the time everything had calmed down, he was gone," Ashley said and paused to catch her breath, as the tears streamed down her face. "They say he didn't suffer. I don't know. I've seen what happens with an attack like that and I've only seen suffering. He just took charge of the situation like the leader that he was, the person he was, and eliminated the threat. He gave his life."
Back at CSC, what began with a simple lift design and a Google search of Sgt. Lacey's name turned into a build with a purpose.
"I've never been this close to this type of tragedy. And knowing that we're going to change someone's life with a vehicle is just an amazing feeling," Wagley explained.
Chrome parts, rusted bolts and caked Michigan mud surrounded Carmena as his air-powered socket wrench rattled another nut tight.
"He was a mechanic. All I am is his hands, doing what he wanted to do when he came home," the Air Force veteran mused as he reached for another part.
That's why Camena and the others worked non-stop for eight days - to give Sgt. Lacey a truck bigger and better than he ever dreamed. And, they kept it a secret from Ashley.
Carmena rolled down the big shop door, so Ashley could only see the truck from one angle, the tailgate. Along with 40-inch tires, monster black rims and fender flares, new front and back bumpers, L.E.D. lights in the bumper and brush guard, and a back-up camera (most donated by vendors when they heard about Sgt. Lacey's sacrifice), Wagley had the tailgate wrapped so that no one who sees the truck will ever doubt what it is about.
On the left, a photo of Sgt. Lacey's dog tags, a faded flag waves near the center. To the right, the words that Ashley had originally emblazoned across the rear windshield float in fancy white script - "Sgt. William Kelly Lacey, my husband my love. KIA Afghanistan, 01/04/14."
Assembled inside the shop, several soldiers who heard about the project choked back tears with the CSC employees as Ashley laid eyes on the tribute to her husband for the first time. All Ashley could do was cry ... and utter, "Oh my God," into her hands. So many memories live in that truck. She and Sgt. Lacey took their first vacation in it. They brought Lily home from the hospital in it. And, their first ride through the mud, Ashley at the wheel and Sgt. Lacey on a computer screen, was in it.
"That truck is allowing him to continue to live," Ashley said.
It is a chance to live on through the work, the sweat and the mud. A fitting tribute to a mechanic, a soldier and a man of men - Sgt. First Class William Kelly Lacey.