By Cindy McIntyreApril 29, 2016
FORT SILL, Okla. April 29, 2016 -- When Staff Sgt. Rusty Dunagan began his patrol in Afghanistan on Sept. 22, 2010, he had no idea his life would change forever. An improvised explosive device sheared off both of his legs above the knee, and took off his left arm at the elbow.
Five-and-a-half years later, Dunagan has found a way, many ways, to live with his changed body. Thanks to the Gary Sinise Foundation, his home has also changed, allowing him to do many household activities with the touch of a finger on his smart phone or iPad.
Dunagan almost got to meet Sinise shortly after his injury occurred. His wounds were so serious that he was sent to Walter Reed Army Medical Center where Sinise was doing a USO tour. Because of an impending snowstorm, Sinise did not get a chance to visit the hospital patients, but he did make sure Dunagan got an autographed Polaroid photo of him.
"Of all the celebrities (who visited the combat wounded), I normally closed my door, but Gary was one of those I had wanted to meet."
He did meet Sinise when he was at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio in March 2013. Sinise was there with chef Robert Irvine, host of the Food Network's "Restaurant: Impossible," during an Appreciation Day for the staff and patients.
Dunagan said there are several programs that build smart technology homes for profoundly disabled veterans, and he and his wife Angie applied to Sinise's foundation which partnered with the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation in late 2012. They were accepted into that foundation's Building for America's Bravest program and moved into their new, mortgage-free home May 20, 2015.
He said a project manager was assigned to help them design the home that was custom-fitted to meet his physical capabilities and the space his growing family needed. (Their oldest of five children is 18; the youngest is 2.)
They looked at about 10 properties where they would build their "forever home" as he called it. And with the project manager and Sinise, they selected a local home builder who would incorporate the technology and physical requirements of an ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act)-compliant home. That includes lack of wheelchair-obstructing thresholds, wider entryways, accessible bathrooms and smooth floors for wheelchair movement.
"A lot of people don't realize a door can limit your accessibility," he said.
"We were very involved with the process," said Dunagan. "We sat down with the designer and the home builder. We had a hand in picking out everything."
Dunagan said he can arm the security system and lock the doors digitally with his smart phone or iPad. The blinds are set to open and close automatically, and he can also control the television and climate control this way.
"Smart technology makes life easier. I don't have to crawl out of bed to see if I locked the doors," he said. "When I'm at work I can use the phone and check the security cameras or check on the kids at home."
The countertops are lower so he can access them from his wheelchair, the washing machine and dryer are front loaded, and there is enough space to maneuver his power chair.
Dunagan has been the veterans affairs caseworker and military liaison for Congressman Steve Russell, who represents Oklahoma 5th District, since January 2015. He is also an avid sportsman, and goes after wild hog, quail, dove, deer and other game.
"I hunt anything I can eat," he said. "I don't hunt for trophies." Grilling it is one of his past-times as well. "I shot a hog one year and cooked half of it for Easter."
In 2013, the Sinise foundation expanded the home-building efforts by establishing its Restoring Independence & Supporting Empowerment (R.I.S.E.) program. As of today, there are 44 custom smart-technology homes throughout the country, either finished or under construction, through the foundation.
"Gary is the modern day Bob Hope," said Dunagan. "He doesn't just focus on the severely wounded Soldiers. He has programs for current service personnel and World War II veterans, too."
While combat-wounded veterans receive medical care through the Veterans Administration, building them homes that help them live independent lives is not one of the compensations provided by Uncle Sam. The Sinise foundation is one of those filling the gaps to help America's heroes live the best lives they can within their limitations.