Fort Hood WTB Soldier's dedication to disabled vets earns him DOD Disability Award
November 30, 2012
"Humbling," says Staff Sgt. Donald Sistrunk when meeting the men and women veterans of America's 20th Century wars, amazed at how the old timers in their 80s and 90s can be so happy and go lucky in spite of missing limbs, crippling health and battered bodies.
"Look at what they went through," the 38-year-old disabled vet said of the demoralizing conditions of their wartime service spent in the 'mud and ruck,' hoping that he will inherit their positive attitudes when his disabilities catch up to him decades down the road. "I mean, look at what today's Soldiers have in comparison to them. We get hot chow and a place to sleep. They had nothing."
Whether at the Disabled American Veterans (DAV) post he commands or on the geriatrics ward at Temple's Veterans Affairs Medical Center (VA) where he is an Operation Warfighter intern, the Warrior Transition Brigade (WTB) Soldier has made it his mission to help every veteran he meets.
This passion, plus his commitment to helping others, is why Sistrunk will be honored Dec. 4 in the Pentagon's hallowed Hall of Heroes. Sistrunk is one of two Army wounded warriors, along with 34 Department of Defense employees selected for the award, which honors the outstanding contributions and accomplishments of disabled military members and DOD civilian employees, as well as recognizes organizations for their efforts in employing people with disabilities.
To be nominated, the employee must demonstrate initiative in overcoming a disability, be an inspiration to others and have extensive community involvement assisting handicapped and disadvantaged persons to achieve their full potential.
"He is very deserving of this award because of all his accomplishments during his tenure at Alpha Company," said his former company commander, Capt. Jose DaCunha. "I'm not surprised that he won the award, but I was surprised how competitive it is with only two Soldiers out of the entire Army selected for the award."
DaCunha said he nominated Sistrunk because of his "hand-on" involvement with veterans in the community, as well as WTB's 1st Battalion Soldiers.
Helping Soldiers drive him
"He's doing a lot of great things helping out veterans at the Temple VA. And then in his off time, he's working at the DAV helping veterans secure additional benefits that they should've gotten but they haven't received," DaCunha said, adding that Sistrunk has also been a positive force in A Company. "It's very touching how he affects a lot of Soldiers in a positive way by engaging them in conversation, finding out they didn't apply for a benefit and then helping them with the application."
DaCunha said he recently found out he also was helping Soldiers in WTB's other companies.
"I don't know how he does it," the company commander said on Sistrunk dividing his time between the responsibilities of being a Soldier, a DAV post commander and a VA intern, "but he juggles it all and, ultimately, helps a lot of Soldiers every day."
Sistrunk's former platoon sergeant, Sgt. Todd Middlebrook, said Sistrunk's positive attitude toward combat vets from the Korean and Vietnam Wars has inspired him to want to do more for America's aging veterans.
"We've had lots of talks," Middlebrook said, "Now every time I see a veteran, I thank them for their service, especially the Vietnam vets because they weren't thanked like we have been," adding that singular gesture alone lights up their eyes and generates ear-to-ear grins.
Sistrunk, whose father was a career Sailor, opted to enlist in the Army in 1993 after his dad retired and moved his family to Texas.
"The big joke is I already did 20 years in the Navy, so it was time for a change," the Army mechanic said. "Plus, I get seasick."
Sistrunk spent seven years on active duty with assignments in Germany, Bosnia, Colorado and Korea before ending his service in 2000 primarily because his parents were ill. In 2006, realizing how much he missed the Army and its intrinsic camaraderie, Sistrunk put his uniform back on, but this time as an Army Reservist. The next year, the Nolanville resident's unit was mobilized and was sent 15 miles west to Fort Hood where he switched from mechanic to logistics systems instructor.
He wound up in the WTB March 2011 after tearing up his knee during physical training.
"All the running and rucking took its toll, and one morning during a PT run, I went left and my knee went right," he said.
Eventually, the healing process would deny him an opportunity to finish out his Army career.
"I understand it happens, but I wanted to stay associated with veterans," Sistrunk said on switching his internship from General Services Administration fleet manager with the Army Field Support Battalion to the Temple VA hospital after realized his Army days were over. "Even though I'm getting out, I wanted to continue to be an active part of the military in some way."
Learning from geriatric ward vets
Today, the staff sergeant, who is the recipient of four Army Commendation Medals and two Army Achievement Medals, spends his days on the fifth floor at the Temple VA geriatric ward chatting with Soldiers from World War II, Korea and Vietnam while checking them in and educating them on benefits and services that are available to them.
"Just talking to them is very rewarding," he said. "You always draw from the experiences of other people. They teach me to appreciate what we have."
Sistrunk, whose only visible military association at the VA is a name tag that says "wounded warrior intern" said many are taken back a bit when they realize he is active duty.
"Even though a lot of them know about the internship program, they are surprised because they expected us to be in uniform," he said adding that wearing civilian clothes is part of the transitioning process from military to civilian.
After work and military duties, Sistrunk can be found Friday through Monday at Nolanville's DAV Post 22 where he has served as post commander for the past two years.
Sistrunk said his DAV membership enables him to continue to serve others and to help veterans who aren't receiving any benefits.
"I'm running across World War II vets who weren't even aware of entitlements as well as the Vietnam vets who are entitled to health care because of exposure to Agent Orange," he said.
It's the 'nobody told me' phrase that motivates Sistrunk to preach benefits and entitlements.
"The drive to be active in DAV is because I would want someone to help me if I needed assistance," he said, adding that helping other veterans energizes that camaraderie tie between people who have served. "That's what the DAV is designed for because we have service officers go step by step in helping you get your benefits. There's no guarantee you'll get them, but service officers definitely have a leg up on it versus you doing it by yourself."
One vet he has helped is John Endrihs, who started his military career in 1953 with the New Jersey National Guard but closed out his 30-year career with the Navy.
"I never applied for benefits," the retired Seabee said, "because I didn't know I could."
When Endrihs first visited the post a few years ago, it was Sistrunk who greeted him and made him feel welcome.
"Here is this young kid asking me how I am and what can he do for me," the 76-year-old Endrihs said about Sistrunk and the 38-year age difference between the two.
When Sistrunk found out about Endrihs' hearing loss largely associated with heavy-equipment operations, he directed him to the Post's service officer, Stan Williamson, a Vietnam vet who helped Endrihs file a claim, although the VA has yet to assign a rating.
"The Army has come a long way in helping soldiers receive benefits," Sistrunk said, "but 20,30 years ago, you had your barracks lawyers telling you that you were entitled to this or that but they never applied for it because they didn't know how."
Endrihs is thankful for Sistrunk and said the Disability Outreach Award is fitting for his character and integrity.
"This man has a heart as big as the Atlantic Ocean," he said. "It doesn't matter what branch of service someone was in because he'll do anything for them. We're all in his heart."