Column: Gary Sinise charity launches chapter here with a surprise

Daniel "Doc" Jacobs, retired Navy combat vet, is with Gary Sinise, whose foundation has built Jacobs an adapted smart house.
Daniel “Doc” Jacobs, retired Navy combat vet, with Gary Sinise, whose foundation has built Jacobs an adapted smart house in Vista.
(Courtesy of the Gary Sinise Foundation)

The second U.S. chapter of the Gary Sinise Foundation was launched Wednesday, Aug. 18, in San Diego, and the ceremony ended on a surprise note.

Disabled military veteran Jorgé Salazar, a double amputee, was presented the keys to a specially adapted hand-operated Chevy Silverado pickup parked beside the USS Midway Museum during opening ceremonies.

Salazar, an invitee to the event, wasn’t expecting this sudden gift.

It’s an example of what this foundation, started 10 years ago by actor Gary Sinise, does best. It lends a helping hand to those who have helped others — first responders, wounded warriors and Gold Star families affected by the loss of a loved one during service.

The foundation dispenses free meals and handshakes at its Serving Heroes events, puts on Gary Sinise & the Lt. Dan Band concerts, organizes Invincible Spirit Festivals, gives outreach grants to first responders and veterans, treats Gold Star kids to special events and takes veterans to New Orleans for National WWII Museum tours.

On Aug. 26, the foundation, supported by donations, will perform another fairy godmother-like good deed.

A representative will hand the keys, not to a car, but to a house, to an Iraq war veteran whose Humvee was ripped apart by a roadside bomb near Ramadi 15 years ago. The blast killed one soldier instantly and wounded four others, one of whom later died.

The explosion on Feb. 25, 2006, was only two weeks before Navy hospital corpsman Daniel “Doc” Jacobs was ending his tour after participating in 175 combat patrols and saving numerous lives.

Despite his own broken back, broken neck, ruptured ear drum, shattered forearm, missing fingers and crippling leg injuries, Jacobs tended to the wounds of his comrades. After tying tourniquets to his own wounds, he gave first aid to fellow soldiers, supervised their transfer to casualty collection points and guided other corpsmen.

He is credited with saving three lives that fateful day — including his own.

Jacobs underwent three hours of surgery, was placed in an induced coma for three days and awoke Feb. 28 in a hospital in Bethesda, Md.

He received a Bronze Star with valor, along with a Purple Heart, for his actions that day, plus a Navy/Marine Corps Achievement Medal for saving the lives of 59 coalition force members, along with other honors during his military career.

Jacobs then spent two years as a patient in the Naval Medical Center San Diego. His left leg was amputated below the knee after the explosion, and his right leg still is in jeopardy after 30 surgeries to repair extensive damage.

Nevertheless, Jacobs went back on active duty in May 2008 and was assigned as a corpsman to a naval infantry unit.

Proving there is life after a debilitating injury, when he retired from the Navy in late 2012, the former college baseball player was invited to try out for the L.A. Dodgers. He met former Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda at a Veterans Day event that year.

When talk turned to baseball, Lasorda handed Jacobs his card and said, “OK, you’re going to come try out for us.”

Jacobs didn’t make the team, but received additional tryout offers from the White Sox, Florida Gulf Coast League Tigers and Milwaukee Brewers. He also started a foundation that awards sports scholarships to military kids to defray sports fees and equipment costs.

His passion for saving lives has continued. In 2019, he wanted give one of his kidneys to a friend in need but wasn’t a match so he donated a kidney to a stranger to enable his friend to move higher on the transplant wait list.

A few months later, he achieved one of his longtime dreams — climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. (He is pursuing another goal of running a half marathon on all seven continents.)

Jacobs’ life reads like a suspense novel — so he published his autobiography and now is busy writing a novel.

He met Sinise a couple of years ago at a military event.

The actor asked about Jacobs’ living situation and learned the veteran had applied for a V.A. grant to modify his two-story home to make it more user friendly. Sinise suggested he apply to his foundation’s R.I.S.E. (Restoring Independence Supporting Empowerment) program, which builds smart homes adapted to the needs of severely wounded warriors.

“I don’t deserve one,” Jacobs recalls responding. “There are people with worse injuries than me.” Nevertheless, he took Sinise’s advice and applied.

A couple of years ago, he got a call saying his application was approved. Jacobs’ reaction: “Chills and tears and just a wave of emotions. ... It’s truly a blessing.

“I won’t have to crutch upstairs on a prosthetic to shower and change clothes,” he says. Plus, doors now will be wide enough for him to get in and out of his house in his wheelchair. Sinks will be lower, and countertops will be wheelchair accessible.

Many of the appliances, TV, lights, music, climate control, window blinds and security cameras will be remote control operated.

Pete Franzen, R.I.S.E. senior project manager, says the foundation has built nine adaptive smart houses in San Diego and 72 nationwide over the past 10 years. “Our goal is to complete about 10 houses a year,” he says.

The foundation, headquartered in Woodland Hills, set up its first chapter in Orlando, Fla., in August 2020.

“We created this chapter because we recognize that San Diego has a strong military and veteran community, as well as a first-responder community,” explains Gib Bosworth, the foundation’s VP of strategic initiatives and outreach.

The board of directors, headed by retired Navy Master Chief Petty Officer Chris Thorne, will meet in conference space donated by a local business.

Bosworth says there won’t be a physical office: “We’re mindful of managing our expenses ... we want to put every dollar into the pocket of a veteran or a first responder.”

— Diane Bell is a columnist for The San Diego Union-Tribune