It’s (Still) a Wonderful Life

Welcome ‘Home’ Sgt. 1st Class Ryan Davis

Words By Ben MerrillPhotos Courtesy of The Davis Family

At the end of the 1946 Christmas movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey discovers that he is the wealthiest man in Bedford Falls. Not because he has money in the bank, a thriving business, or even the nicest home in town, but because he has friends—people who appreciate the sacrifices he’s made to give them a better life. And if having caring friends is the true measure of a person’s wealth (and it is), then Sergeant 1st Class Ryan Davis may just be one of the wealthiest men in Richmond Hill.

Ryan was born in Edmonds, Oklahoma in 1986 to a family that understood the need for, and value of, hard work. The youngest of three children, he grew up with an appreciation for what he’d been given, including an education and a chance to play baseball at the University of Texas at Arlington. Following graduation in 2009 with a bachelor’s degree in sociology, Ryan returned to Oklahoma to work with his dad. Not long after that he met his future bride, Asia, and she has been by his side ever since.

“Truth be told,” he says with a slight smirk, “Asia appeared at my door one night looking for my roommate, Preston. They had a date lined up. But I liked what I saw and when she said ‘Hi, are you Preston?’ the only thing I could think of to say back was ‘yeah, I’m Preston.’ I confessed to that sin a day or so later, but by then she was mine. Luckily it all turned out okay—Preston is now my son Knox’s godfather.”

In 2012, following in his grandfather’s and uncle’s footsteps, Ryan made the decision to enlist in the Army. “I wanted to serve my country,” he says. “There were plenty of reasons not to enlist, but I was at a place in my life where I just felt drawn to give something back to this great country that had given so much to me. As a college grad, I could have gone in as an officer, but I didn’t want to serve behind a desk. As innocent as it sounds, there were bad guys out there whose only goal was to destabilize the world and harm our national interests. I wanted to help do something about that.”

Ryan was assigned to Fort Benning for basic training and he married Asia that same year. In 2013 his son Knox was born. “Not everyone understood my desire to serve,” he says, “but Asia did, and while it meant hardship and loneliness for her, she supported me all the way. She’s been my rock—and sometimes my rattlesnake—since the day I met her.”

Following basic training, Ryan went on to serve in five deployments, four times to Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan and one time to Syria. “My first three deployments were in Afghanistan where I was essentially part of a strike force,” he says. “We’d go out at night looking for Taliban and ISIS locations. My fourth deployment was to Syria where our goal was to eradicate ISIS and try to bring stability to a country wracked by civil war. We’d hide in various homes during the day, and go out into the streets at night. I learned a lot on that deployment. We were there for five months, always in danger, but I knew we were there for the right reasons.”

It was on his fifth deployment, again in Afghanistan, when his life—and body—literally exploded. “It was August 16, 2019,” he says, pausing slightly to collect his thoughts. “I was second in command of a strike force and we were operating under heavy fire from the enemy. We knew they’d hidden bombs in the walls of houses so we had to be extra careful with our movements. I had a grenade strapped to my belt and as I made my way past one particular house, they detonated a bomb they’d hidden in the wall. That explosion, in turn, detonated the grenade in my belt, and the next thing I remember I was falling over thinking I had better get the hell out of there. But when I went to lift my right arm, only my shoulder came up. And when I tried to stand up to run, I realized I couldn’t feel—or use—my legs. Another soldier—a guy named Mo who I knew from Oklahoma —ran over to my location and quickly assessed the situation. He got on top of me and did what he could to keep me alive.”

There’s an army term called the ‘golden hour’ which basically means you try to get an injured man in front of a doctor within that hour. “Unfortunately,” Ryan said, “the first medevac bird (helicopter) that came to get me got shot down and the second one ran out of fuel. Finally a third pod came swooping in, guns blazing, and they got me out of there. I’m telling you, these are amazingly brave men. All the time I’m thinking, ‘so this is where it ends.’ But it wasn’t a feeling of fear, and it wasn’t a feeling of anger. It was actually a feeling of honor, that I’d done my best and given my all, not just for my men, but for my country. If someone had to lose an arm, a leg, or a life that night, I was proud it could be me. I remember asking God to just take me home then, but either He wasn’t listening or He had other plans. As they brought me off the battlefield, men were lining up to donate units of blood, which they were pumping straight into me. It was a night I will never forget.”

As soon as it was safe to transport him, the Army flew Ryan to San Antonio, Texas, where he would spend the next two years undergoing surgeries, dealing with infections, and learning how to use what was left of his body. “You don’t go through something like that without a lot of pain,” he says, “and you don’t go through that kind of pain without a lot of opioids. Sadly, you don’t take that many opioids without becoming addicted. So in addition to trying to recover some sense of my life, I also had to work through getting past the addiction, and that led to some times of serious depression. But there were also times of clarity, when I realized I could still make choices. As they say in psychology circles, I had to choose which dog I was going to feed. With Asia’s help and tenacity, and the expertise of some amazing doctors and counsellors, I began to turn a corner. I realized if God hadn’t taken me then, there was something else I was meant to do.”

Ryan would go on to spend another year in rehab, this time at Walter Reed Hospital, before returning to Savannah in 2022 to begin a new life with his wife and son. And that’s when something utterly amazing began to take shape.

“Right now, even as we speak,” Ryan says, “there are carpenters, electricians, plumbers, and other folks building the most amazing house you have ever seen. And when it’s done, which should be in mid-October, they’re going to hand us the keys.”

The amazing house to which he refers is being built by the Gary Sinise Foundation through its R.I.S.E. (Restoring Independence / Supporting Empowerment) program, which builds 8 to 10 houses a year for wounded veterans like Ryan. According to GSF Sr. Project Manager Andy Jahnsen, each house is customized to the particular needs of the individuals and families for whom it is being built. “Ryan Davis,” says Andy, “knowing the risks, stood up and decided to protect his country. His goal was to give all of us a better life. Our goal at GSF is to help give Ryan a better life through independence and empowerment.”

Once an applicant has been vetted and approved, Andy noted, that’s when the work begins. “We start by finding a realtor and a local builder who’s willing to work within our fairly stringent parameters. There are a lot of moving parts, so we need someone who’s willing to be flexible and who will work with our partner businesses and organizations, many of whom donate lumber, building supplies and labor.”

For this project, the foundation selected Richmond Hill home builder Michael Roberts, who says he is more than grateful for the opportunity. “People like Ryan Davis are the reason why I get to do what I do,” he says. “Because they make the decision—the sacrifice—to protect this country, I get to build houses, teach Sunday school, raise a family, and live my life in safety and peace. It’s that simple. A project like this takes a ton of coordination, from asking folks for help, donations, and support, to working with GSF and their partners to make everything come together. And while it takes a bit of time, I never lose sight of the fact that I only have that time because of men and women like Ryan Davis. I feel blessed to have been selected for this project.”

Equally blessed is local Realtor® Sarah Poulos, who initially phoned Asia to discuss a real estate listing. “We talked for a few minutes,” she says, “until I realized who I was talking to—I was talking to the wife of Ryan Davis. Once I knew that, I took my real estate hat off, and put on my ‘we’re military—we’re family’ hat. I wanted to do whatever I could to help them find appropriate housing.” Jumping into action, Sarah made a few dozen phone calls, including the call to Michael Roberts, and at least on the Richmond Hill end of things, got the ball rolling. She helped GSF find the perfect building lot; she researched HOAs; and she managed all the behind the scenes real estate transactions. “It’s really been a labor of love,” she says, “right down to helping choose doorknobs and cabinet handles. That one simple business call led to one of the deepest and most rewarding friendships I have ever had, and I am so grateful to be part of the team that is bringing this amazing house to reality.”

“It is all so far beyond humbling,” Ryan says, leaning back in his chair. “The gratitude and generosity these people have shown me and my family only confirms the reasons I chose to serve in the first place. Because let’s face it: when all is said and done, we all have a choice in life. We can focus on ourselves, or we can do something to make the world a better place. Sure, there’s a lot of stuff I can’t do anymore, and sure, I could focus on that and become an angry and bitter man. Or I could choose to be grateful for Asia and everyone else who’s stood by my side; for an amazing home that I’ll soon be moving into; and for the good I can still do for others who are facing challenges similar to mine. I look at the work GSF is doing, and it gives me energy, ideas, and enthusiasm. I’m ready to give something back—again.”

Towards the end of It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey’s guardian angel, Clarence, gives him a special gift: a chance to see what the world would look like without him. And what he sees is shocking. His beloved city of Bedford Falls is in shambles; the people he loves most are penniless, lonely, or broken; and perhaps most touching, his brother Harry—a war hero who saved numerous lives—never made its past the age of 10 because George was not there to save him from drowning as a child. What George realizes in that moment is how many lives he has touched, saved, and made whole, just by being born.

Somewhere here in Georgia, or in Oklahoma, or even in Afghanistan, there are families sitting down to dinner tonight—families that would not exist if Ryan Davis had never been born; or if he had not made the sacrifices he did. He might not have an angel named Clarence to show him what the world would look like without him, but he has dozens of angels looking out for him right here in Richmond Hill. You’ll find them at 369 Channing Drive, building the most amazing house you have ever seen.

Welcome home Sergeant 1st Class Ryan Davis. Thank you for your service, and thank you for reminding us: it is STILL a wonderful life.