U.S. Navy SEAL William Wagasy (JD ’00, MDR ’01) retired from active duty with a new mission: to serve those who have served their country.
By Sarah Fisher
William Wagasy was exhausted. He was once again a civilian after serving four tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan as a U.S. Navy SEAL, an experience that was more than a job—it was a calling. He returned from his last deployment in December 2011 and, after finishing his active duty in September the following year, he moved to the Catskills for eight months, solo. No friends, no television; just a small apartment and a membership to train at a nearby boxing gym.
“It was a good time for me to reflect on my thoughts about the last 10 years, to be active with my body in a different way at the gym, and not have anyone to answer to. I just kind of unplugged for a while,” Wagasy recalls.
Wagasy was one of the fortunate ones; he returned home relatively unscathed, save for two incidences: in 2006, his Humvee drove over a bomb and in 2008, he survived a vehicle rollover that shattered his wrist and injured his shoulder. The rollover required 10 days of recovery in the hospital, but, he says, “we were all able to walk away from it.”
However, many men and women return from war with the types of catastrophic injuries that require lifelong care from their country. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, one in 10 veterans is disabled and more than 20,000 have been wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Your heart always stays with the people you know who have been severely injured,” Wagasy says.
While still on active duty, he remembers worrying about his injured friends; “how they’re going to move forward, and what kind of support structures they’ll have around them.”
When Wagasy learned that the Gary Sinise Foundation was hiring a director of programs and outreach to serve those very communities, he jumped at the chance to join the team in April 2014. The nonprofit provides practical and financial assistance to military personnel, first defense responders, and veterans, from dishing out meals at airports with the USO to personnel on the move to building smart homes that cater to the needs of veterans with disabilities.
“I felt the same fire applying for the job as when I applied to be a SEAL,” he says. “This job enables me to give back to my own community.”
Wagasy’s position affords him opportunities to build friendships with veterans while assisting them in rebuilding their lives. He helps to facilitate partnerships working closely with the executive director of the Gary Sinise Foundation Judy Otter, with other nonprofits, corporations, and local communities to organize fundraising events; recently, he visited the University of Notre Dame (ND), his undergraduate alma mater, for a run organized by an ND freshman to raise money for Marine Sgt. Michael Frazier, who lost both of his legs in Afghanistan in 2011. They raised more than $10,000 to help build the Frazier family a home.
“Everyone from young kids to the elderly ran that race,” Wagasy notes. “It’s inspiring. Kids who ran that race will carry that in their hearts for the rest of their lives.”
Their mission is broad, he explains. “It’s to honor veterans, their families, and other first responders by strengthening and building inspired communities. Being a veteran myself, for me it’s about building relationships with the vets we serve. It’s about being their battle buddy through a totally different battle.”
The roots of Wagasy’s military calling can be traced back to his childhood in Springfield, Missouri.
“I come from a strong Christian family and was brought up to love my country from an early age,” he remembers. “My parents would tell me about the people who sacrificed for our way of life and for important ideas such as the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.”
He always imagined having a career in the military, but first went to Notre Dame on a full-ride football scholarship, graduating in 1996 with a degree in accounting and second major in philosophy. He then moved west to Pepperdine, where he graduated from the School of Law with a JD in 2000 and a master of dispute resolution in 2001.
“I had graduated, but still had this longing to serve my country in some way. I always had a fascination with the Navy SEALs, so the plan was to join the reserves and then start my law career,” he says.
Instead, he awoke on September 11, 2001, to a phone call from a good friend on the east coast. “That friend actually lost his brother in the South Tower. So when 9/11 happened, it was an easy decision for me. I just went into the navy and dropped, completely, everything else.”
Today, Wagasy is a veteran-turned-civilian who has found new purpose in helping other veterans find their own new purpose upon returning to civilian life. He is keenly aware of the parallel and says this new chapter in his story has inspired him to “fall in love” with his country in a whole new way.
“It’s been the second great calling on my heart: to be able to serve those who served their country.”