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NEW CASTLE (KDKA) — A true hero has gotten his reward — a brand new “smart house” built through the efforts of the Gary Sinise R.I.S.E. (Restoring Independence Supporting Empowerment) Foundation.
Marine Sgt. Eric Burkett was critically wounded in 2012 when the MV-22B aircraft he was piloting crashed in Morocco. Now, he and his family have moved into their new “smart” home outside New Castle, Lawrence County, near his childhood home and close to family and friends.
The family — Eric, wife Melissa and their six children — pulled up to the property in a special handicap limo-van, escorted by members of the Patriot Guard Riders on motorcycles. The Guard Riders also stood color guard during a ceremony to thank the hundreds of volunteers and donors who helped make the house possible.
Many of those volunteers were in attendance, along with Doug Vitale and his wife, Alexis, of the South Hills, the first local recipients of a Sinise Foundation smart home.
When it was his time to speak, Burkett read from the Bible to explain how the new home, called “Stillwater” got its name.
“Psalms 23,” Burkett read to a hushed crowd: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, He leads me beside still waters, He restores my soul.”
Burkett says hearing the passage read in church gave him the idea for the name.
Burkett and his family have spent the years since his injury, he lost both lower legs and suffered serious internal and eye injuries, in and out of VA hospitals and rehabilitation facilities. While most were at least somewhat accessible, normal life was hard.
Their new house is completely handicap accessible, a beautiful light-brown, brick ranch situated on a peaceful plot of wooded land, near where Burkett and his father used to hunt and fish. It has wide doors, handicap accessible bathrooms, spacious, easy-to maneuver rooms, and no stairs.
“This morning when I got up and looked at the steps on crutches [in the family’s old apartment], I said ‘Goodbye steps, I’ll see you later,’ because I knew I was coming here,” Burkett said.
The house also has some personal touches. Workers created a “bow” room where Burkett can continue to practice his archery and display the awards and medals he’s won for his shooting. The couple also insisted on an accessible guest room, where similarly-injured military friends can come and visit.
“To be a place where there’s healing, love, security, not just for my family, but for others who come and stay,” said Burkett, as Melissa sat by his side, answering reporters’ questions.
It’s certainly not lost on the Burkett family that they wouldn’t be reaching the end of this road “home” without the help of the Sinse Foundation, founded by actor Gary Sinise, known for his “Forrest Gump” movie role as Lt. Dan, a character who loses both of his legs in Vietnam. The foundation has built specially-adapted smart homes for wounded veterans all over the country.
The family is also grateful for the hundreds of volunteers, and the hundreds of thousands in donated money and building supplies that helped build the house.
“There’s no way I’ll be able to express my gratitude for the huge amount of work that went into taking this dream concept and making it a forever home,” said Burkett.