Supporting Wounded Veterans One Floor at a Time

Left to right: Tommy Maxwell, Chris Zizza, Rick Holden, CPT Luis Avila, Claudia Avila, Gary Sinise, Barbara Titus, Michael Martin, Anita Howard, Jeff Fairbanks. Photo courtesy of Gary Sinise Foundation.
Left to right: Tommy Maxwell, Chris Zizza, Rick Holden, CPT Luis Avila, Claudia Avila, Gary Sinise, Barbara Titus, Michael Martin, Anita Howard, Jeff Fairbanks. Photo courtesy of Gary Sinise Foundation.

Each of us lives with the understanding that life can change in an instant. Few of us, however, have had to endure circumstances that alter the course of not only our own lives, but the lives of our immediate family members and loved ones as well.

United States Army Captain Luis Avila’s life-changing instant occurred on Dec. 27, 2011. That is when an improvised explosive device (IED) detonated near him and his team in Afghanistan during his fifth combat tour. Three soldiers were lost that day, and two were wounded. CPT Avila’s injuries were severe, causing the amputation of his left leg, two strokes, two heart attacks, and anoxic brain damage brought on by a severe lack of oxygen. His wife, Claudia, and their three sons stood by his hospital bedside and prayed as CPT Avila remained in a coma for 40 days with little hope for recovery.

Life changed for CPT Avila again on Feb. 13, 2012 when he woke up from that coma. While he had survived his injuries, he now had to face the many obstacles those injuries would present for him and his family.

About this same time, a foundation was being established by a dedicated humanitarian to help severely wounded veterans like CPT Avila face their new life challenges. In 2011, actor Gary Sinise founded the Gary Sinise Foundation (GSF) to ensure the sacrifices made by America’s defenders and their families are never forgotten. The foundation’s efforts support veterans, active duty servicemen and women, first responders, and their loved ones. One of their many outreach programs includes R.I.S.E. (Restoring Independence Supporting Empowerment). R.I.S.E. is building specially adapted smart homes for our most severely wounded heroes. The program also provides adapted vehicles, mobility devices, and home modifications for our wounded, injured, ill and aging veterans from all military conflicts.

All of the veterans served by the R.I.S.E. program have experienced catastrophic injuries. Most have suffered the loss of multiple limbs, which makes simple tasks very difficult. Sinise learned this for himself when he took on the role of U.S. Army Lieutenant Dan Taylor for the 1994 film, Forrest Gump, which received the Academy Award for Best Picture that year. Sinise himself received a nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

“All of us at the Gary Sinise Foundation are very grateful for this wonderful alliance, and for your taking this journey with us to make a difference in the lives of our veterans. Through your support, we are changing lives and restoring independence to our wounded heroes and their families.” – Gary Sinise

Luis Avila house in Bethesda Maryland with the Gary Sinise Foundation.
Luis Avila house in Bethesda Maryland with the Gary Sinise Foundation.

In the film, Sinise’s character loses his legs during combat, as well as his will to live, struggling with Post Traumatic Stress. After playing LT Dan, Sinise became aware of the challenges faced by our wounded and began supporting disabled veterans through the Disabled American Veterans organization. “I’ve met some of the most extraordinary wounded veterans over the years and their resiliency inspires me each day,” says Sinise. “Some of these warriors are missing all four limbs, have suffered severe burns, or have traumatic brain injuries, and simple tasks are constant reminders of their new normal. I began raising money to build homes for these heroes and saw how much their lives were improved, having a home specifically designed for their needs. We are able to do this all over the country, serving the needs of many of our wounded and their families because of the support of organizations like the NWFA.”

By the end of 2016, 52 GSF R.I.S.E. specially adapted smart homes will have been completed or in various stages of construction throughout the United States. And of those 52 homes, NWFA and its members will have provided wood floors, logistics, and installation services for 30 of them.

Army Private First Class Kyle Hockenberry was the first veteran to receive NWFA member-donated flooring in his GSF R.I.S.E. home. In 2011, at age 19, PFC Hockenberry lost both legs and his left arm in Afghanistan as the result of an IED blast. It was in 2013 that Middlefield, Ohio-based Sheoga Hardwood Flooring’s Vice President, Barbara Titus, first learned that money was being raised to build his specially adapted smart home in Marietta, Ohio. She knew she had to get involved.

“Because Kyle was a veteran from Ohio,” Titus says, “I wanted to ensure that he had wood flooring in his home provided by a local manufacturer and made by fellow Ohioans who recognized his sacrifice. Sheoga is headquartered nearby, and I knew I had to make this happen. That’s when I first got involved with the Gary Sinise Foundation.”

Titus and Sheoga have since provided flooring for additional GSF specially adapted smart homes as well, including Marine Staff Sergeant Jason Ross in Fallbrook, California, Air Force Senior Airman Brian Kolfage in Sandestin, Florida and a home modification for Army Specialist Chris Sanna in House Springs, Missouri. Sheoga also has committed flooring for an additional GSF R.I.S.E. project for Army Captain Nick Vogt in Crestline, Ohio.

But Titus’ commitment to the Gary Sinise Foundation did not stop there. In 2014, Titus approached NWFA President & CEO, Michael Martin, to inquire about NWFA’s support of the program. NWFA had participated in similar national programs previously, but was unable to maintain support of those programs due to the difficulty of scheduling projects using volunteers.

“The problem we experienced in the past,” says Martin, “was that our volunteers would commit to a specific time for installation based on a tentative construction schedule. But as schedules were delayed at the last minute, as they often
are with construction projects, our installers were unable to reschedule paying jobs. It created a real scheduling nightmare for us,
and for our volunteers.”

What makes GSF R.I.S.E. projects different is that all projects are coordinated through one general contractor, and all contractors are paid for the work they do. “The contractors are then encouraged to donate back to the foundation whenever possible,” explains Martin. “What we find, though, is that most of our contractor volunteers do the work for free out of their admiration and respect for the veteran. It’s one small way they can give back.”

NWFA members often become part of the veterans’ extended support system following projects. Titus, for example, attended a baby shower for PFC Hockenberry and his wife, Ashley. “It’s impossible to participate in one of these projects and not become emotionally invested,” she says. “The experience truly changes you.”

”I thank National Wood Flooring Association for stepping forward to serve those who have sacrificed so much protecting our freedom and way of life. You have shown, by your example, the corporate responsibility of service and giving back, which will surely inspire others in the corporate community, as it is so important that our defenders know there is a grateful nation standing behind them.” – Gary Sinise

American OEM Wood Floors invited GSF smart home recipients for a tour and company picnic. Photos courtesy of American OEM Wood Floors.
American OEM Wood Floors invited GSF smart home recipients for a tour and company picnic. Photos courtesy of American OEM Wood Floors.

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R.I.S.E. project sponsor, American OEM Wood Floors based in Burns, Tennessee, invited GSF specially adapted smart home recipients to tour their plant and participate in their company picnic this past summer. “Yes, we’re donating floors for these veterans,” says company CEO, Don Finkell, “but we also want them to be a part of our community as well.”

Matt Poole, Owner of Coats, North Carolina-based Specialty Wood Floors, got involved in a GSF R.I.S.E. project for Army Master Sergeant Cedric King. MSG King lost both his legs and part of his right hand in 2012 as the result of an IED blast. His GSF specially adapted smart home is under construction in Duluth, Georgia, but his existing home is located in Spring Lake, North Carolina, near Poole’s business. After meeting King at the NWFA’s Wood Flooring Expo in Charlotte last year, NWFA committed to helping King replace the flooring in his existing home to prepare it for sale. NWFA Board Vice President, Chris Zizza, with Westwood, Massachusetts-based C&R Flooring, worked with Poole to arrange installation of material donated by Raleigh, North Carolina-based Horizon Forest Products.

Because the project was extensive and included removing existing floors, Poole was in the King home for several weeks. “Being in someone’s home for that period of time, you get to know them,” says Poole. “To see the obstacles Cedric and his family face every day, and to know I can relieve some of that burden, well, it’s just a humbling experience.”

To date, more than 30 NWFA member companies have participated in GSF’s R.I.S.E. program throughout the United States. NWFA works with manufacturer members to donate flooring, distributor members to donate logistics and delivery to the jobsites, and contractor members to donate installation. Specially adapted smart homes are somewhat larger in format due to the additional floor space required to enhance mobility for wheelchairs and other prosthetics. “The homes generally range from about 3,500 to 4,000 square feet,” says Martin, “but that’s just a guideline as each home is custom built to meet the needs of each veteran and his or her family.”

Veterans are not the only beneficiaries of the GSF R.I.S.E. program. The Gary Sinise Foundation recently announced that it will provide its first specially adapted smart home for a first responder, Michael Flamion, this coming year. Police Officer Flamion was shot in the neck during a routine traffic stop near St. Louis last year. The incident left him paralyzed from the neck down.

“Officer Flamion’s project will be special for us here at NWFA because we’ll be able to participate in every phase of construction,” says Martin. “His new home will be built just a few miles from our office, so we’ll have many opportunities to visit the jobsite and get involved as part of his extended support network. That’s ultimately a big part of the program as well.”

Titus agrees that support of the program involves more than just providing wood floors. She points out that these veterans and first responders volunteer to do a job from which many others would run. “One thing I’ve learned is that for anything these individuals lack in physical form, they more than make up for in terms of their character, their drive, and their integrity,” says Titus. “I am honored to know them and consider them my friends.”

More poignantly, however, Titus sums it up this way: “A wise man once said, ‘The two most important days in your life are the day you are born, and then the day you find out why.’ I found my why.”

To learn more about the Gary Sinise Foundation’s R.I.S.E. program, visit garysinisefoundation.org/programs/rise.

To learn more about how you can get involved as an NWFA member, visit
nwfa.org/giving-back.aspx, or contact the NWFA at 800.422.4556.

View a video of the Captain Avila Home Dedication.

Read an exclusive Q&A with Captain Avila.

Thank you to the NWFA Gary Sinise Foundation R.I.S.E. Participants

All American Hardwood Flooring
Allwood Flooring
Ambassador Floor Company
American OEM Wood Floors
Bona US
Brazilian Floors
C&R Flooring
Derr Flooring
FloridaTile
Gallaher
Grill Works
Horizon Forest Products
Huber/Advantech
JD’s Flooring
Jerry’s Fine Floors
Just Around the Corner
JW Hardwood Floors
Lockwood Flooring
Mannington Flooring
MAPEI
Maxwell Hardwood
Middle Tennessee Lumber
Mullican Flooring
NTCA
Pallmann
Palo Duro Hardwoods
Rust-Oleum
Shaw
Sheoga Hardwood Flooring
Somerset Hardwood Flooring
Specialty Wood Floors
Swiff-Train
WD Flooring
West Coast Flooring

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