ALEXANDRIA, Va — For the first time in years, retired U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Chris Walker opened and closed the blinds on his own.
“In my (current) house, I can’t close the blinds, so if somebody opens them, they stay open until somebody else closes them,” Walker said.
But, with his brand new, custom designed smart home, Walker doesn’t have to rely on others to complete simple tasks like pulling a cord to darken a room. He can do it all on his iPad.
Walker looks forward to a simplified life, thanks to a little help from the Gary Sinise Foundation.
Founded by the actor who starred as Lt. Dan Taylor in the classic film Forrest Gump, the Gary Sinise foundation aids veterans through benefit concerts and outreach programs, among other activities since 2011. In 2012, the foundation launched its Restoring Independence Supporting Empowerment — or RISE — program, which builds or modify homes and mobility devices for severely injured veterans like Walker.
Walker didn't always need a smart home to get around. In 2006, he was deployed to Iraq as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. In his second tour, he served as a Explosive Ordnance Disposal team leader in Afghanistan. While on the job in 2012, an IED he was disarming went off, destroying both arms and his left leg, shattering facial bones, bursting an ear drum and detaching muscles in his eyes.
Walker claims he would have gone blind if it weren't for his safety glasses, which now hang on the wall in his new study next to his Purple Heart.
After Walker returned from Afghanistan in 2012 as a triple amputee, he started to realize that handicap friendly isn’t one-size-fits-all. In the house he moved into after retiring, he couldn’t turn around in hallways, reach the sink from his Segway chair, and he had difficulties cooking for himself.
Those difficulties made him rely on his daughter Kali and girlfriend Caitlin, who he met during his rehabilitation at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda.
According to census data from 2014, 3.8 million veterans have service-connected disabilities. Using a severity scale that goes from 0-100, an American Community Survey determined that 1.1 million of those veterans have disabilities that rank a 70 or higher.
Walker got involved in the program after meeting actor Sinise himself at Walter Reed, said Scott Schaeperkoetter, the director of operations for the RISE program.
“A lot of these guys we build for have a personal relationship with Gary,” Schaeperkoetter said. “Gary visits a lot of hospitals and spends time with wounded veterans in the hospital.”
Walker says he remembers the day Sinise found him at Walter Reed soon after he returned to the United States.
“I was on a lot of drugs and I had a man come in, and he was talking to me, and I really wasn’t comprehending what he was saying. But, I remember when he told me that ‘We’re going to build you a house that is yours,’” Walker said. “As time went on and I was getting better and communicating with the foundation back and forth it was like, ‘This is real. This is happening.’”
From there, the foundation moved forward with construction of the house about a year ago, making sure to talk to Walker and his family about what features would make life easiest for him. Some of those updates included a security system, lights and automatic blinds that can be controlled from an iPad, an oven with doors that open at wheelchair height, lower countertops and a therapy pool for Walker to get in shape with.
Many of the smart devices in his home are donated by Core Brands, a national sponsor of the Gary Sinise Foundation.
Executive Director Judy Otter said the foundation tailors each house to the recipient.
“Chris Walker is the first veteran (the foundation has worked with) that is a double arm amputee and a leg amputee. Chris’s situation is a little bit different, so we really sit down and talk to them about their family situation, who’s their caregiver, what hospital do they go to, do they have family support,” Otter said. “As much as one can expect something to be forever, we want them to be their forever homes that they can grow into and they can age into.”
Most of the costs of building those smart homes are covered by donations, Otter said, adding that the company saves about $150,000 to $200,000 per home thanks to donations from national sponsors.
“And then, of course, we have donors all across the country that support these veterans that are very deserving, from $5 a month to people’s social security checks,” she said. She added that the company has had about 35,000 donors.
Walker’s home is the 38th completed by the foundation. About 20 more are in some stage of planning and design, Schaeperkoetter said.
“It’s way beyond anything I had imagined,” Walker said. “For me and my family, it’s more independence, it’s more that I can be myself. Everything is set up so where I can just do it myself and I can be a normal person and just have a normal life.”
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