“Humbling,” Staff Sgt. Donald Sistrunk said about meeting veterans of America’s 20th century wars.
He was amazed at how men and women in their 80s and 90s could be so easy-going despite missing limbs, crippling health and battered bodies.
“Look at what they went through,” the 38-year-old disabled veteran said. “I mean, look at what today’s soldiers have in comparison to them. We get hot chow and a place to sleep. They had nothing.”
Whether at the Disabled American Veterans post he leads or on the geriatrics ward at the Central Texas Veterans Health Care System where he is an Operation Warfighter intern, the Warrior Transition Brigade soldier has made it his mission to help every veteran he meets.
This passion, plus his commitment to helping others, is why Sistrunk was honored recently at the Pentagon’s hallowed Hall of Heroes.
Sistrunk was one of two Army wounded warriors, along with 34 Defense Department employees selected for the Department of Defense Disability Award, which honors the outstanding contributions and accomplishments of disabled military members and Defense Department civilian employees, as well as recognizes organizations for their efforts in employing people with disabilities.
To be nominated, an employee must demonstrate initiative in overcoming a disability, be an inspiration to others and have extensive community involvement assisting handicapped and disadvantaged people to achieve their full potential.
“He is very deserving of this award because of all his accomplishments during his tenure at Alpha Company,” said his former company commander, Capt. Jose DaCunha. “I’m not surprised that he won the award, but I was surprised how competitive it is with only two soldiers out of the entire Army selected for the award.”
DaCunha said he nominated Sistrunk because of his “hands-on” involvement with veterans in the community, as well as the brigade’s 1st Battalion soldiers.
Helping soldiers drive him
“He’s doing a lot of great things helping out veterans at the Temple VA. And then in his off-time, he’s working at the DAV helping veterans secure additional benefits that they should’ve gotten, but they haven’t received,” DaCunha said.
“It’s very touching how he affects a lot of soldiers in a positive way by engaging them in conversation, finding out they didn’t apply for a benefit and then helping them with the application.”
Sistrunk’s former platoon sergeant, Sgt. Todd Middlebrook, said Sistrunk’s positive attitude toward combat vets from the Korean and Vietnam wars inspired him to want to do more for America’s aging veterans.
“We’ve had lots of talks,” Middlebrook said, “Now every time I see a veteran, I thank them for their service, especially the Vietnam vets because they weren’t thanked like we have been.”
Sistrunk, whose father was a career sailor, opted to enlist in the Army in 1993 after his dad retired and moved his family to Texas.
“The big joke is I already did 20 years in the Navy, so it was time for a change,” the Army mechanic said. “Plus, I get seasick.”
Sistrunk spent seven years on active duty with assignments in Germany, Bosnia, Colorado and Korea before ending his service in 2000 primarily because his parents were ill. In 2006, realizing how much he missed the Army and its intrinsic camaraderie, Sistrunk put his uniform back on, but this time as an Army reservist. The next year, the Nolanville resident’s unit was mobilized and was sent 15 miles west to Fort Hood, where he switched from mechanic to logistics systems instructor.
He wound up in the transition brigade in March 2011 after injuring his knee during physical training.
“All the running and rucking took its toll, and one morning during a run, I went left, and my knee went right,” he said.
Eventually, the healing process would deny him an opportunity to finish out his Army career.
“I understand it happens, but I wanted to stay associated with veterans,” Sistrunk said on switching his internship from General Services Administration fleet manager with the Army Field Support Battalion to the Temple VA hospital after realizing his Army days were over. “Even though I’m getting out, I wanted to continue to be an active part of the military in some way.”
Learning from vets
Today, the staff sergeant spends his days on the fifth floor at the Temple VA geriatric ward chatting with soldiers from World War II, Korea and Vietnam while checking them in and educating them about the benefits and services available to them.
“Just talking to them is very rewarding,” he said. “You always draw from the experiences of other people. They teach me to appreciate what we have.”
After work and military duties, Sistrunk can be found Friday through Monday at Nolanville’s DAV Post 22 where he has served as post commander for the past two years.
Sistrunk said his DAV membership enables him to continue to serve others and to help veterans who aren’t receiving any benefits.
“I’m running across World War II vets who weren’t even aware of entitlements as well as the Vietnam vets who are entitled to health care because of exposure to Agent Orange,” he said.
One vet Sistrunk has helped is John Endrihs, who started his military career in 1953 with the New Jersey National Guard but closed out his 30-year career with the Navy.
“I never applied for benefits, because I didn’t know I could,” he said.
When Endrihs first visited the post a few years ago, it was Sistrunk who greeted him and made him feel welcome.
Endrihs is thankful for Sistrunk’s help.
“This man has a heart as big as the Atlantic Ocean,” Endrihs said. “It doesn’t matter what branch of service someone was in because he’ll do anything for them. We’re all in his heart.”