Retired NFL quarterback Brett Favre, right, and U.S. Army veteran Rusty Dunagan trade hunting stories and photos Monday inside a barn at the Lauderdale County, Miss., farm of actress Sela Ward. (Terri Ferguson Smith / AP)
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MERIDIAN, MISS. — With five children and a house to build, Oklahoma native and former soldier Rusty Dunagan is facing the challenges of life from a wheelchair, but a gift from a highly acclaimed actor and a pro athlete has brightened the summer for him and his family.
On Monday, Dunagan and his family arrived in Mississippi where Dunagan, a triple-amputee, met with retired NFL quarterback and Mississippi native Brett Favre. The family met Favre at the Lauderdale County farm of actress and Meridian native Sela Ward.
At a fundraiser gala for Hope Village sponsored by Ward in 2013 in Meridian, Favre volunteered to donate a training session to the highest bidder. Actor Gary Sinise bid on and won the session then pledged to donate it to a wounded veteran through the Gary Sinise Foundation.
“I met Gary last year after I retired out of the military. He came down to Brooke Army Medical Center to put on a concert on for the troops,” Dunagan said.
He said Sinise told him he wanted him to have the Favre training session, and so partnering with Ward and her family in Mississippi, the veteran and the athlete met on Monday.
Sinise said he was pleased to be able to bring the two together.
“I was thrilled last year to be able to support my friend Sela Ward and her outstanding effort with Hope Village by bidding on a generous item donated by Brett Favre and giving it to one of America’s heroes,” Sinise said by email on Monday.
“The meeting between wounded U.S. Army veteran Rusty Dunagan and Brett is a way we can take a moment to give back and say ‘thank you’ to a man who sacrificed so much in service to our country. And by helping Hope Village at the same time it’s a win-win.”
On arriving at Ward’s farm, Favre said although it was billed as a training session, they might just throw the ball around and then go fishing.
“I’m honored to help. Believe me I know how blessed my life, as well as how my wife and I — how blessed our lives have been and the fact that we can help people and touch other peoples’ lives,” Favre said. “We grew up humble, modest. We are very fortunate to have the success that I have had over the years — the things we have been able to do and see and experience is just truly a blessing. This ranks right up at the top.”
Talking with Dunagan’s children, Favre asked the eldest son, Daniel, 14, if he played football.
“He used to,” said Daniel’s older sister Marissa, 16.
“Me too,” Favre said.
Siblings Roque, 11, Annalisa, 4, and Rosalee, seven months, as well as Dunagan’s wife Angie, were along for the fun.
“It’s a blessing just to be out here on this beautiful land, for the kids to play with Brett. It’s something they will remember for the rest of their lives for sure,” Angie Dunagan said.
She said support for her and for her husband has been tremendous since his injury in Afghanistan in September 2010. Even the children served as part of the support system.
“From the start, they were, ‘OK. Dad’s hurt. We have to do what we have to do,’” she said. “Everybody has a role in getting life back to normal.”
One of the projects Sinise and his foundation is involved in is Smart Homes for Heroes, which helps provide housing for more severely wounded veterans. A fundraiser for Dunagan’s home was held by Sinise in Oklahoma City in February.
Getting situated in their new home is part of the transition process for Dunagan and his family. It’s very different, he said, leaving the Army and its hospitals where people are accustomed to seeing amputees and burn patients to a civilian community where people are not always prepared to see the results of his injuries.
Dunagan enlisted in the Army on Sept. 26, 2006. Attached to the 4th Infantry Division, 1st Brigade, 1-66 AR, he served a year in Iraq, went home, then trained for Afghanistan for about a year before deploying. Seven weeks after arriving in Afghanistan, Dunagan suffered life-changing injuries.
On Sept. 21, 2010 Dunagan and fellow soldiers were conducting their third combat patrol of the day, he said.
“Our job was to basically deny the Taliban access to this village that was close to our combat outpost and to protect the villagers,” Dunagan said.
A soldier behind Dunagan stepped on a land mine, which set off a secondary explosive device, he said.
“I was standing on the home-made bomb,” Dunagan said.
The bomb sent him hurtling into a nearby creek. The other soldier also survived, but suffered the loss of his right arm and right leg, Dunagan said.
“I was conscious the whole time and I was trying to recover myself, trying to figure out why I couldn’t get out of the water. That’s when I realized both my legs and my left arm were gone,” Dunagan said.
Recalling his state of mind at the time, Dunagan said, “I was at that peace stage, but ultimately what was going through my head was, ‘I’ve got to make it home to my family.’”