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An American Hero is Welcomed Home

6/1/2015

Colleen Rowan

A hero and his wife approach their new smart home

Cpl. Kyle Hockenberry and his wife, Ashley, approach the entrance to their “smart home” for the first time in June 2014. The home was completed by the Sinise Foundation with support from the Knights of Columbus. (Photo courtesy of the Gary Sinise Foundation)

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Shortly before his deployment to Afghanistan in February 2011, Pfc. Kyle Hockenberry had these words tattooed on his side: “For those I love I will sacrifice.” It was a statement filled with meaning for him — a promise to his family, to his beloved country and to her people.

With this seven-word promise close to his heart, then-19-year-old Hockenberry from Newport, Ohio, was deployed halfway around the world to serve. The sacrifice he would make there several months later would change his life forever.

On June 15, while on patrol outside of Haji Rahmuddin in Kandahar Province, the infantryman’s unit came under fire. While moving for cover, Hockenberry stepped on an improvised explosive device (IED). He was catapulted over a two-story grape hut and lost both of his legs and his left arm in the blast. Enduring a long and grueling recovery, the young soldier spent two and a half years at Brooke Army Medical Center in Texas, where he was awarded the Purple Heart in August 2011.

Nevertheless, Hockenberry was still more concerned about his loved ones than himself. “I was more worried about what my family thought and how they were doing,” he said. “I would always ask whoever would come in and see me, ‘How’s everybody else doing? Tell them not to worry about it. I’ll be fine.’”

Hockenberry, together with his wife, Ashley, would soon discover just how much the people for whom he had sacrificed really cared about him.

‘WE CAN WORK TOGETHER’

As Cpl. Hockenberry’s story of bravery, sacrifice and recovery reverberated throughout his community and beyond, it was not long before it also reached a man dedicated to supporting the nation’s wounded veterans. Actor Gary Sinise, known for his roles in movies such as Forrest Gump and Apollo 13, contacted the veteran during his recovery to let him know how thankful he and the rest of the country were for his service.

The Hockenberrys soon learned that they had been selected to receive a computer-equipped “smart home” to be built in Newport Township. In partnership with the Gary Sinise Foundation, the Knights of Columbus provided a $200,000 donation to help construct the home, which is custom built to accommodate a wheelchair and the special challenges that Kyle and Ashley face every day. Cabinets can be raised and lowered, hallways and doorways are wider, and the bathroom is adapted for their needs.

“This house is … a huge deal,” Kyle said. “I would never ask for anything this big. It was just crazy how big it is, but it gives me back a lot of freedoms that I didn’t have other places. I can get around perfectly fine here. … That’s one less thing I have to ask for help, so it means a lot.”

Completed and dedicated in June 2014, the house also includes an elevator, and Kyle can control the climate, lighting, television and security system from his iPad. The garage is also wider so Kyle can get in and out of his truck safely with a lift.

Two months after the Hockenberrys received their new home, Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson underscored the Order’s commitment to active service personnel and veterans during the Supreme Convention in Orlando.

When World War I began more than a century ago, the Knights provided “enormous charitable support for those who were currently serving or had previously served with the armed forces,” Anderson noted in his annual report Aug. 5, 2014. “Service to the military and veterans has continued ever since.”

He noted that thousands of Knights volunteer each year through the Veterans Affairs Voluntary Service program. In fact, the Order has become the single largest volunteer service partner of the Veterans Administration, with a volunteer presence at nearly every VA hospital in the United States.

“It has long been the byword of America’s military that no one is left behind — everybody comes home,” the supreme knight added. “Now, working with the Gary Sinise Foundation we can help make sure that the homes our heroes come back to are worthy of their sacrifice.”

Later that evening, the supreme knight introduced Sinise as a special guest at the annual States Dinner.

Sinise spoke of the importance of the work being done by his foundation and what can be accomplished through its partnership with the Knights of Columbus.

“It is up to us to help our defenders carry their cross, to find their steps, to make a new path as they transition to civilian life,” he said. “The Knights of Columbus has a long, proud centuries-old history of helping and supporting our veterans. In partnering with the Gary Sinise Foundation, we can work together and with communities across this nation to serve and honor the needs of our veterans and military families within those communities.”

INSPIRED TO GIVE BACK

In his very personal talk at the States Dinner, Sinise recalled how he gradually became an ardent supporter of veterans. Growing up during the final years of the unpopular Vietnam War, he did not think much about the sacrifice of those who fought. Talking to family members who served in the military, however, inspired him to begin working with veterans in 1984. Ten years later, when he had the opportunity to play Lt. Dan, a double amputee Vietnam veteran, in Forrest Gump, he strived to play the role with depth and integrity as a way to pay back veterans for their sacrifices.

After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Sinise became even more determined to do something for those who served their country. “As our men and women in uniform stood to answer the call of nation to confront those dark forces,” he said, “I was extremely moved by their willingness to sacrifice, endure and overcome.”

As a result, he formed the Lt. Dan Band and traveled throughout the United States and to hospitals and war zones overseas to entertain the troops with the USO.

Sinise shared how he and his family grew in their faith during this time as well. While his wife had become Catholic in 2000, he was confirmed on Christmas Eve 2010.

In 2011, Sinise brought all his charitable efforts together under one umbrella, launching the Gary Sinise Foundation with programs to help military families, first responders and severely wounded veterans.

The Hockenberrys’ smart home, for example, was provided through the foundation’s RISE (Restoring Independence Supporting Empowerment) program. By the end of 2014, 34 such homes were completed or underway for veterans in need. RISE also provides adapted vehicles, home modifications, trackchairs and wheelchairs for veterans.

Ashley, whose father and grandfather are members of the Knights of Columbus, said the house has made everything so much easier for them.

“This house is just an amazing gift and we cannot be thankful enough,” she said. “We would like to give a really big thanks and shout-out to the Knights of Columbus. Without your help, we wouldn’t have been able to live in this amazing adaptive home.”

Kyle likewise commended the K of C partnership that helped make his smart home a reality.

“All these vets need help,” he said. “This is a big way that you can change their lives and make their lives easier.”

Kyle and Ashley Hockenberry, who are expecting their first child in July, never expected the outpouring of support that their family has received.

“It was really surprising that so many people care,” Kyle said. “And it’s reassuring to know that there are people in the United States who care that much about those who defend our freedom.”

COLLEEN ROWAN is editor of The Catholic Spirit, the newspaper of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston.