Inspiration to Action - Actor Gary Sinise fights for disabled vets

Outlook Magazine, March 19th, 2014

http://www.outlookoklahoma.com/archives/m.blog/27/inspiration-to-action

Written by Heide Brandes in the March 2014 Issue

U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Rusty Dunagan was seven weeks into his second tour of combat when a bomb took almost everything but his life.

On September 21, 2010, Dunagan and his division were on a combat operation in Afghanistan when the man behind him stepped on a landmine. Designed to do as much damage as possible, the blast took off the soldier’s right arm and leg, but it also triggered a second bomb. A bomb directly under Dunagan’s feet.

Rusty DunaganIt was an explosive device designed to kill and destroy, and although Dunagan survived the blast, he woke up two weeks later in a hospital in Germany with both legs and his left arm amputated. “After I was blown up, I woke up and I just thanked God that I was alive,” said the 33-year-old Guthrie native. “I could see my wife and my kids again. Sure, it’s an adjustment for me. It’s hard, but every day, I learn something new.”

With five children ranging in age from four months to 15 years old, Dunagan had to relearn his life as an amputee and disabled military vet. Years of rehab and an unwavering faith and optimism gave him the skills he needed to live a full life, but finances and the burden of being disabled made day-to-day activities a challenge.

Soon those challenges will ease, thanks to not only the support of an entire community, but a famous actor with a passion to help disabled military veterans. Gary Sinise, best known for his role as Lieutenant Dan in the movie Forrest Gump, will build a custom Smart Home for the Edmond hero and his family through the Gary Sinise Foundation. Because of his family’s ties to the military, Sinise has always had a passion for helping veterans. For Dunagan and his family, the home is finally a place to call their own; and it’s a home designed especially to make Dunagan more independent as he adjusts to life’s challenges.

On March 11, The Gary Sinise Foundation will hold the Oklahoma City Inspiration to Action event, a private dinner to raise funds for the RISE Outreach Program. RISE is dedicated to “Restoring Independence and Supporting Empowerment” for America’s severely wounded veterans. Proceeds from this event will help benefit the Smart Home construction for Dunagan and his family.

Role to Real Life Playing the amputee lieutenant in Forrest Gump only made Sinise more aware of how disabled veterans suffer. Since then, he’s been a staunch advocate of veterans’ assistance.

“Of course, playing an injured Vietnam vet in Forrest Gump played a part in that,” Sinise told Outlook magazine. “Through that role, the Disabled American Veterans Association contacted me and that led to my involvement with wounded veterans.”

Gary SiniseAfter 9-11, Sinise became even more active and helped raise funds and awareness for a memorial for fallen firefighters and police. Soon after, the New York Fire Department commissioner contacted Sinise about helping raise funds for a new home for a quadruple amputee. “I jumped on board,” Sinise said. “After that, we had another guy who was a quadruple amputee, and we decided to do a concert to raise money to build him a home too. I started the Gary Sinise Foundation three years ago, and that was a natural next step in my support of the military.” Its mission is to serve and honor our nation’s defenders, veterans, first responders, their families and those in need by creating and supporting unique programs that entertain, educate, inspire, strengthen and build communities. Through its Building for America’s Bravest partnership, the Gary Sinise Foundation builds custom Smart Homes for severely wounded veterans. Additionally, the foundation has created many other programs that tackle specific issues for current military personnel and veterans.

Being able to help Dunagan is an extension of Sinise’s passion for aiding injured soldiers. “Rusty has five kids, and he has a lot of needs. He’s given a lot for his country, and we can help Rusty have a more manageable and independent life,” said Sinese. “He needed a home that would help him, his wife and kids.”

A Place to Call Home Each of the Smart Homes built by the foundation includes technology like retractable cook tops, cabinets and shelving, automated lighting, heating, air-conditioning and window treatments controlled by a tablet. Homes also include elevators, roll-in bathrooms, front-load washers and dryers, intercom systems and automated doors. All of this can help restore independence in countless ways.

Dunagan is excited to have a home, but his thoughts are more for his family than himself. “All the smart technology is really about taking the burden off my family and making me more independent,” said Dunagan. “Ultimately, I could get by in a tent if I had to, but I have five kids and a beautiful wife. This home will take some of the burden off her.” Dunagan’s wife, Angie, said her husband’s positive attitude and perseverance help keep the family happy and healthy. However, having a new home was something she never dreamed of. “I was so surprised when they contacted us,” she said. “I’m so grateful for what the Gary Sinise Foundation does.”

The groundbreaking for the Dunagan home, located in far north Edmond on five acres will be March 12th. According to organizer Stuart Jolly, Executive Political Director at Education Freedom Alliance and a retired Lieutenant Colonel, the home is expected to be roughly 5,000 square feet and will be completed by the time Dunagan’s children start school in the fall.

“The Inspiration to Action event on March 11th will feature 800 folks at a dinner that honors Rusty. Gary Sinise will be there, and we hope to raise enough money to build the home,” said Jolly. “We all donate and give time, but to give to something that you can see happen, to people you have met, it makes you teary-eyed.” Besides the dinner, the event will also feature a special presentation on March 10th of Forrest Gump. “It’s going to be so special to see this movie on its 20th anniversary and have Gary Sinise there,” said Jolly. Other highlights of the dinner include special donations from Jay Leno and Bill O’Reilly and other notable personalities. Individual tickets are $100 and sponsorship opportunities are available from $2,500 to $100,000.

For Dunagan, the event means an easier, brighter future for him and his family. Despite his horrific injuries, Dunagan said he doesn’t regret serving in the military to keep his family and his country safe. “Serving my country means everything to me,” he said. “If I could do it again, I would. But to see people want to give back to those who sacrificed, it’s nice. It means a lot.”

For more information on the Gary Sinise Foundation or the Oklahoma City Inspiration to Action event, visit garysinisefoundation.org or contact Stuart Jolly at S.Jolly@EduFreedom.org.

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