Battle buddies' new mission: Homes for disabled vets
Statesville, NC — STATESVILLE, North Carolina (CNN) -- Dale Beatty and John Gallina are battle buddies.
They both joined the North Carolina National Guard at 18. They've served together on missions at home and abroad.
But both also bear mental and physical scars from their military service in Iraq: Beatty lost his legs to an anti-tank land mine, and Gallina suffered a traumatic brain injury.
While Beatty was recovering at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, members of his community offered to help him build a home for his family. The gesture deeply affected him, inspiring a new mission.
In 2008, Beatty and Gallina founded Purple Heart Homes, a nonprofit that has modified or helped provide homes to 23 disabled U.S. veterans.
Beatty was honored as a CNN Hero this year for his work helping veterans. He recently sat down to talk about his work, his friendship with Gallina and the unexpected roads they've traveled together.
CNN: How did you and John meet?
Dale Beatty: John and I met probably in 1996, in the National Guard. We were just two young, 18-year-old kids. ...Once you're in the military and you have a battle buddy, they're your battle buddy for life.
He's been there every step of the way. We've done everything together. ... We grew up together in the service. And I don't think that's a new thing for anybody. My grandfather did it with his buddies in World War II.
I think of us then, skinny little kids in green uniforms ... they don't even wear those uniforms anymore, so you know that's a long time ago. But it's cool to see where we've come.
CNN: John had actually left the National Guard when you got orders to deploy to Iraq. How did he end up going with you?
Beatty: I called and I said, "Do you want a vacation?" He's like, "What are you talking about?" And I said: "We're going to Iraq. Do you want to go?"
He showed up a couple hours later (and) re-enlisted. That bond -- you can't let your friends go without you, if you can help it.
We deployed in early 2004, and we were attached to the 1st Infantry Division. ...We did a lot of missions right alongside the regular Army: escorting convoys, searching houses, you name it.
CNN: You were also injured together in November 2004. What happened exactly, and how did that impact your friendship?
Beatty: We were on a patrol, part of combat operations on a supply route.
This highway had been heavily mined in the past month with insurgent activity. There was always something going on, so we went out to kind of recon the area.
The vehicle we were in -- John was driving -- we just went off the side of the road a little bit to avoid something. ... I remember seeing all the sand across the dash of the Humvee -- just like poof, pop -- go up in the air, and that was pretty much the last thing I remember. ...There were anti-tank mines in the gravel, so that's eventually how I lost both legs. ...
I know he felt really bad about it for a long time, something that was not even his fault. He blamed himself a lot for my injury. ... John had those hidden wounds with traumatic brain injury and (post-traumatic stress disorder), and I saw him struggle.
CNN: Your community helped you build your home. How was John involved in that, and how did that process inspire you to start Purple Heart Homes?
Beatty: During the construction of my house, I was the contractor, my dad was my superintendent and John was kind of my confidant. ... He's been a custom builder since he was fairly young, so if I wanted to know about, "What's the code issue on this specific thing? What's most cost effective solution?" I would call, pick his brain and he always gave me good advice. Closer to the end, he moved back to Statesville and was able to help during the final build of the house. ...
When my community was helping me, it really showed me the potential power and the effectiveness of groups within communities, especially when we're talking about veterans. ... My family really had the best-case scenario for a family that had been hurt that bad, and I knew, after meeting other veterans, that that wasn't the case for all of us. ... There's not as much help for (veterans) who weren't injured in Iraq and Afghanistan. ...
John and I sat down and we started thinking about a nonprofit. ... I really wanted to create a group that could show people that there's thousands of veterans right here in our midst that could use help. That's really what led us to form our organization with the values and the mission that we have. ...
Regardless of when you served, we're all the same. We're all veterans. Being able to empower communities to take care of even those gray-haired, distinguished veterans -- that's really what we're after.
CNN: How does your experience serving in the military with John impact your working relationship?
Beatty: The bond that you form doing the jobs and the dangerous missions we (did) is unbreakable.
I might get mad at him, but I know we'll be able to talk in 15 minutes after that. We really make a good team. ... He's really the hard-driving pusher that tries to make stuff happen, and I'm the one who says, "Hey, wait, let's think about that again before it happens." ...We're an odd couple, but it works. ...
John and I have really grasped this, and we're running with it as fast and as hard as we can. ...I'm glad he's still my battle buddy, and I'm glad we've been able to have this next chapter of our lives, doing good things and helping people out.