Messages were scrawled on studs and inside of the walls of a home under construction in southern Georgia for Sharif Muzayen.
But it wasn’t graffiti. Rather the messages were in support and encouragement for the former Orange police officer who lost a leg to a drunk driver a little over five years ago. Above the front door is a personal message from Gary Sinise, an advocate for veterans and first responders, whose namesake charity foundation is building the home.
Muzayen, 38, a veteran of the Marine Corps, had his left leg amputated above the knee after he was struck while on duty by a drunk driver in 2016. The house was built to honor and aid Muzayen for the sacrifices he made to serve and protect at home and abroad.
“I read a lot of the messages,” he said. “It was amazing how loving and caring (everyone) was.”
Muzayen was outside his vehicle assisting a fellow officer on a call in December 2016 when a drunk driver struck him, shattering the tibia and fibula on his left leg, severing his femoral artery, and causing a brain hemorrhage.
Although fellow officers were able to save his life, eventually his lower leg was beyond repair. Despite numerous surgeries and three years of rehabilitation and physical therapy, in 2019 Muzayan had amputation surgery.
The crash cost the drunk driver a three-year prison sentence. Muzayan lost his leg, his career and favorite activities, like playing soccer with his kids.
Gary Sinise Foundation steps in
At a Walls of Honor ceremony on Sept. 20, Muzayen was recognized for his five years as a police officer and a five-year Marine Corps career that included two deployments in Afghanistan.
Muzayen said he didn’t know much about the event beforehand, other than he was to report to the police department in Kingsland, Georgia, a town of 18,000 about 35 miles north of Jacksonville, Florida. The Muzayen family relocated to Georgia in 2020, in part to be closer to Muzayen’s sister.
When Muzayen arrived at the station with his youngest son, Ben, he was greeted by a full motor police squad with flags. Muzayen and his son were then given a police escort to the new home.
“There were a lot of people there — a lot,” said a surprised Muzayen.
The Gary Sinise Foundation, which supports and advocates for veterans and first responders, is building a specially adapted, mortgage-free SMART home through its RISE (Restoring Independence, Supporting Empowerment) Program. Sinise is a veteran award-winning actor, who, coincidentally, is best known for portraying Lt. Dan, a double amputee in the movie “Forrest Gump.” Sinise has been recognized many times by various military and first-responder groups for his humanitarian work.
The Walls of Honor ceremony marks the halfway point of construction for the new home. Construction is expected to be complete in the first half of 2023, said Josh Knoller, a spokesperson for the Gary Sinise Foundation.
“Our Gary Sinise Foundation Walls of Honor ceremonies are a time for family and friends, and so many grateful American’s to come together to write messages of love and appreciation within the walls of the future home for the wounded hero. Within the very walls of Officer Muzayen’s home are messages of love and support for him and his family. Reminders that we are grateful for his service and will never forget their sacrifices,” said Actor and Humanitarian Gary Sinise.
Muzayan said he learned about the Foundation’s work from a family friend and was encouraged to submit an application. The former Orange police officer bought a rural four-acre parcel of land on which the house is being built.
Muzayen said the house is about 3,000 square feet and fully wheelchair accessible, including extra wide doors and other features. Although Muzayen has a prosthetic leg, he said the wheelchair accessible features are a big benefit.
“I had a lot of input on the layout,” Muzayen said.
The home is also fully equipped with leading edge electronic SMART features that allow him to operate door locks and other features from a tablet.
After his injury, Muzayen battled for years to save his leg and return to duty as a policeman. In January 2019, he formally retired.
“I tried to do everything to come back, but I always knew the chances wouldn’t be the best,” Muzayen said at the time.
He had said he would return to police work only if he knew he would be able to perform at the highest level possible. Muzayen was offered a non-sworn desk job but declined, saying he was not built for paperwork.
“That would drive me crazy,” he said. “That’s why I was a Marine and a patrol cop.”
Since his retirement, Muzayen has been enrolled in online classes and is scheduled to receive a degree in firearms technology. He plans to set up a home business in gunsmithing.
The family — his wife, Vanessa; children Luke, 14; Leia, 8; and Ben, 3 — are settling into the rural southern lifestyle. Even with his pension, Muzayen said the cost of living in Southern California made it tough to make ends meet. In addition, the family home had two stories and was difficult to navigate.
“I fell down the stairs three time,” Muzayen said.
Asked if he missed Southern California, Muzayen said, “No, sir, I do not. My wife does.”
Muzayen particularly enjoys the outdoors and is preparing for deer season.
“I try to take the kids fishing and hunting,” he said. “It’s very hard for me, it’s not an easy feat. I’m a lot slower than the kids. I do my best to get out and see nature.”
The biggest loss is his beloved soccer and playing sports with the kids, he said.
For all he has lost, a career he dearly loved — he called his patrol job his “best job” — mobility and all the things one takes for granted, Muzayen is gratified by the love and support he has received from strangers — not to mention the new home.
“I’m extremely blessed,” Muzayen said.