BY MIKE FUHRMAN
John Gallina owes his life to a friend and brother in arms who insisted he and other members of his unit work late into the night to prepare for a dangerous military mission.
Through Purple Heart Homes, the nonprofit he and late friend Dale Beatty founded, Gallina has spent the past 15 years making the most of his second chance by serving aging and combat-disabled veterans.
Those experiences and the perspective he’s gained by providing housing solutions to veterans across the U.S. have inspired Gallina to strive to do more to help more people. That’s what motivates him to get out of bed every day, in spite of his own combat-related physical and mental struggles, and it’s why he’s running for a seat in the N.C. House of Representatives.
“There are all these people that are hurting out there and nobody is doing anything about it,” he said.
A Republican who is challenging incumbent Rep. Jeff McNeely in the 84th House District, Gallina wants to show the next generation what’s possible in Raleigh when you put service above self-interest.
‘We would have all died’
John Gallina grew up in North Iredell, the oldest of five children, and graduated from North Iredell High School in 1997.
Inspired by his grandfather “Big John” Gallina’s service in the DMZ during the Korean War, he enlisted in the Army National Guard as a junior and completed basic training the summer before his senior year.
While serving part-time in the Guard on duty weekends, he worked construction in Charlotte for a few years. He got his contractor’s license and moved to Asheville. His enlistment was coming to an end when terrorists hijacked and crashed planes in New York City, Arlington, Va., and Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001, killing nearly 3,000 people.
Sixteen months later, his friend Dale Beatty — with whom he enlisted — called and said his old unit had been called up and was deploying to Afghanistan as part of the War on Terror.
Recently divorced, Gallina was at a crossroads. He decided to re-enlist, explaining simply “that was the path I wanted to take.”
His service in Afghanistan and experience– including a pair of IED explosions that hit vehicles he was traveling in — altered the trajectory of Gallina’s life and ultimately directed him to a life of service to combat wounded and aging veterans.
On August 26, 2004, Gallina was traveling in a troop carrier with another unit when the vehicle hit by an IED planted by militants. “It just turns to chaos,” he said. “The fog of war takes over.”
A machine gunner, Gallina was the only member of the group who was not wounded by shrapnel. A new dad who had been in Iraq for six hours and was sitting three feet away from Gallina was killed in the blast.
It was a traumatic experience, one that forged Gallina’s resolve to “make good because he can’t … and make sure it wasn’t a waste.”
A second explosion occurred less than three months later, on November 15, 2004. Beatty and Gallina were part of a group that had been assigned to help clear a supply route to Fallujah.
The night before the unit learned that an armored Humvee had become available for the assignment. Beatty decided the unit would work late to move their GPS, radio system, weapons and other gear to the fortified vehicle.
More than 18 land mines had been cleared from the route the previous week, and Beatty knew his soldiers would be safer in the armored Humvee.
It was an unpopular decision. “We were outright obstinate,” Gallina said. “We wanted to sleep.”
After staying up until 2:30 a.m. to finish the work, they got a couple of hours of sleep and then set out on the mission. After clearing their half of the route, the unit stopped at a checkpoint, where Gallina hopped in the driver’s seat to relieve Brian Duckett, who was wilting under the sweltering desert sun.
The convoy started moving again, and the five vehicles came upon a burned-out hole in the road caused by a landmine. The first four vehicles straddled the small crater and kept moving. Beatty then directed Gallina to drive around it. The two friends then “saw the sand kind of pop” and time seemed to stop.
“I said, ‘What was that?’ ” Gallina remembers.
Then the Humvee exploded, and Gallina’s world went black.
He was the only member of his unit who was not blown out of the vehicle. Beatty, who was seated next to Gallina, was the most seriously injured. The medics who responded initially believed Gallina, who was pinned against the windshield in what was left of the Humvee, was killed by the blast.
Beatty’s decision to have his unit transfer their gear to the armored Humvee – as unpopular as it was at the time – is the only reason the men survived.
“We would have all died,” Gallina said. “Zero question.”
‘You can change the world’
Gallina considers his combat injuries – ruptured discs that eventually led to spinal fusion and a brain injury that caused issues that still linger – to be minor compared to the catastrophic injuries his friend Dale Beatty suffered and contributed to Beatty’s death, at age 39, in 2018.
“Dale had to put his legs on to leave the house,” Gallina said. “I would say I have nothing to complain about.”
In 2008, inspired by how the community rallied to build a new wheelchair-accessible home for Beatty, the two friends founded Purple Heart Homes. The idea for the nonprofit originated one day when the two men were standing the porch talking about Vietnam veterans.
“What if we could go out and help one Vietnam vet? What would that look like?” they wondered.
That conversation led the two men to put $750 each into a bank account to start the effort. Their first project was a wheelchair ramp for a veteran named Kevin, who lived in nearby Conover.
Gallina remembers the tears on Kevin’s face, the pain he felt and his profound appreciation when the project was completed. “I’ve been home for 45 years and nobody’s ever told me, ‘Welcome home,’ ” the veteran said.
That simple project spawned the Statesville nonprofit, which now has three dozen employees and has helped more than 2,000 veterans from Alaska to Puerto Rico. A total of $42 million worth of projects have been completed.
At a time when the country is divided politically and reasonable people are rightfully skeptical of just about everything and everyone, Gallina has witnessed firsthand what’s possible when people work together to make a difference for others.
“It’s truly unstoppable,” he said. “You can change the world.”
‘People simply deserve a choice’
Gallina has no political experience. He’s not a politician.
As word got out that he was considering a run for the 84th District seat, Gallina got his first real taste of modern politics and what happens when you are preparing to challenge an incumbent Republican in a party primary.
First, political allies of Jeff McNeely, the district’s current representative, threatened to redraw the district lines to move Gallina’s home into another lawmaker’s district. (Gallina didn’t flinch. He was prepared to pack up and move back into McNeely’s district if he had to do so.)
Next, a well-known North Carolina political strategist whom Gallina wanted to hire to run his campaign balked at the offer after he was told he’d be blackballed by the GOP if he worked against McNeely. (Hence, Gallina has hired a firm from Virginia.)
Even worse, another McNeely loyalist in Raleigh told Gallina that a $6 million appropriation for Purple Heart Homes in the biennium budget – to fund housing solutions for North Carolina veterans — might not materialize if Gallina went ahead with his run McNeely’s seat. (That threat disturbed Gallina – and emboldened him. He has vowed, if elected, to never play those games.)
He’s running because he believes the current group of lawmakers has lost touch with the work they are supposed to be doing in Raleigh as well as the values of the people they represent. McNeely, for example, supported a massive expansion of the state’s school voucher program despite vocal opposition by Iredell-Statesville Schools and Mooresville Graded School District officials. He was also roundly criticized and lost a committee chairmanship in 2023 for making remarks on the House floor that were widely condemned as racist.
“I believe people simply deserve a choice about who represents them,” Gallina said. “It’s their choice – not the people of Raleigh or other districts.”
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in the January edition of “IFN Monthly.”