ALBANY Tech Sgt. Joe Wilkinson of Nassau retired from the Air Force in 2009 and returned home to face a whole different kind of fight. Because of extensive neurological damage incurred during his tour of duty in Iraq, the 33-year-old father of three needs to use a wheelchair.
Now, everyday things like stairs and narrow doorways are huge obstacles, and at home he
relies heavily on the help of his wife, Lucretia. But things are about to change.
On Monday, actor and humanitarian Gary Sinise was in town to announce that the Gary Sinise Foundation and The Stephen Siller Tunnel To Towers Foundation have partnered to build Wilkinson a home that he will be able to navigate with ease.
The two organizations are co-sponsors of the Building for America’s Bravest program, which builds “smart homes” for wounded veterans.
A rumbling motorcade of at least 200 motorcycles escorted Wilkinson to the Washington Avenue Armory on Monday for the unveiling of plans for a concert by Gary Sinise and his Lt. Dan Band, which will be the major fundraiser for the home-building project.
The concert will be held at 7 p.m. April 28 at the Washington Avenue Armory.
Sinise, star of CBS’ “CSI: New York,” was nominated for an Academy Award for his portrayal of Lt. Dan, a character who lost both legs in battle in the movie “Forrest Gump,” which was released in 1994.
Formed in 2004, the Lt. Dan Band performs 30 to 40 concerts each year to entertain troops and their families and to raise money to help wounded warriors and the families of fallen service members. Sinise plays bass in the band.
“Life is like a box of chocolates … you never know what you’re gonna get. And you got me today,” Sinise joked, playing on a famous quote from “Forrest Gump.”
But his message was a serious one: “We can never do enough for our veterans,” he said. “We all remember specifically what happened to our Vietnam veterans when they came home from war and it was a shameful period in history, the way we treated our veterans. It weakened our country. … We’re going to make sure that this never happens again when our veterans come home from war.”
Many war veterans attended the concert announcement in support of Wilkinson and his family.
Marty Herman of Schenectady, who served in the Army for 29 years, was part of the motorcade.
“We can’t forget our veterans. We just can’t. The nation that forgets its veterans forgets its purpose,” he said.
Vietnam veteran Robert Goo of Colonie plans to raise money to support the house-building project.
“Anytime I can help to support a veteran or serviceman, I always [do]. I don’t know Joe, but he’s a brother,” he said.
Building for America’s Bravest will construct 10 homes for wounded service members this year.
Past homes built by the organization have included “smart house” features such as cabinets, sinks and stoves that lower to wheelchair level at the touch of a button; motion-sensing lights; automatic doors; and a heated, exterior wheelchair ramp. All of the electronics are controlled via iPad.
The Wilkinsons will work with architects to come up with a layout that fits their needs and lifestyle.
“We’ll just make it what we need,” Wilkinson said. “Basically the doorways need to be widened. That’s one of the problems I have in the home now. It will give me more freedom, let my wife kind of go back to her life and kind of get out of the whole nursing, caretaking thing.”
A wooded parcel of land in Nassau, where the new home will sit, has already been purchased by the two foundations. Construction will begin as soon as enough cash is raised for the project. Organizers hope that will be this summer.
Trustco Bank has started an account to collect donations for the endeavor and contributed $1,000 to get the fund started.
Wilkinson was overwhelmed by the outpouring of generosity at Monday’s event. “To know that everybody came out to support me and my family, you couldn’t ask for much more and there’s no better feeling than that. I’m kind of on top of the world right now,” he said with a smile.