By Gary Sinise
Woodland Hills, CA, USA
I was born and raised in a working class family in Chicago, Illinois. I was drawn to acting through a play I participated in at my high school and began taking all of the drama classes I could find. In my twenties I was focused on acting and building a theater company with my pals, Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago.
It was through this endeavor that I would meet my wife Moira and members of her family that were in the military. I had always had great respect for the military, having veterans in my own family. But it was through my wife's side of the family and what was happening to our country during the Vietnam War that I developed a deep understanding of the sacrifices and hardships that our servicemen and women endured. In 1983, I secured the rights to direct a play about Vietnam called Tracers written by veterans based on their experiences during the war and we began having a veteran's night at Steppenwolf once a week through the run of the play. From this production it became a tradition to give veterans a free performance during the run of each of our plays. A tradition that has lasted for over 30 years.
Some years later, in 1993, I would be cast in the film Forrest Gump, as Lt. Dan Taylor. Because of this role I would form a long relationship with the Disabled American Veterans organization. A major turning point in my life came on September 11th, 2001. On that day, I was reminded of the dark forces that exist in the world and I was in terrible pain at the loss of so many of my fellow Americans. As I watched our military respond, our young men and women bearing the most extreme hardships, my heart was always with them. I remembered what my own family had been through during Vietnam. I knew the difficulties this new generation and their loved ones would endure. As I watched our service members give of themselves completely to their country, even to the most final personal sacrifice, I realized that this was where I had to invest my efforts. So I was called into action. I volunteered for the USO and became dedicated to ensuring that our service personnel and their families wouldn't experience the same negative reception and lack of support that awaited our veterans returning from Vietnam. It all began by visiting the war zone in Iraq in 2003 and offering moral support. I shook hands, signed autographs, and took pictures with our men and women in uniform. I soon found that most of our service members knew me as Lt. Dan from my role in Forrest Gump, so in 2004 Gary Sinise and the Lt. Dan Band was formed to help entertain our troops. We have now done hundreds of concerts for military bases, charities, and fundraisers supporting wounded heroes, Gold Star families, veterans, and troops around the world.
I have visited the wounded in our military hospitals dozens of times over the years. At Walter Reed in 2009, I met our nation's first surviving quadruple amputee veteran, Army Specialist Brendan Marrocco. I couldn't believe the strength and wisdom that he had under the circumstances he was facing. His acceptance and bravery was humbling. His story will never fail to grant me a new perspective on my own life. To show our support and appreciation for his incredible sacrifice, the band and I performed a public concert in Staten Island to help kickoff a massive fundraising effort with all proceeds going to help build Brendan a custom-designed Smart Home that would assist him with his everyday challenges. All the money was eventually raised and Brendan moved into his new home in the fall of 2011.
But of course there were others. I soon learned that we could never do enough for those who served in our military, but we could always do a little bit more.
So that's why in 2011 I brought all my efforts together under one umbrella with the launch of the Gary Sinise Foundation (GSF). Our mission is to serve our nation by honoring our defenders, veterans, first responders, their families. In its short history, the Gary Sinise Foundation has already established numerous programs designed to entertain, educate, inspire, strengthen, and build communities. Through our new R.I.S.E. program (Restoring Independence & Supporting Empowerment) we are helping wounded veterans or first responders obtain the necessary resources to overcome their new life challenges by providing custom-designed Smart Homes, home modifications, adapted vehicles, and mobility devices. Gary Sinise & the Lt. Dan Band is boosting morale with performances on military bases at home and abroad while raising awareness and inspiring communities through benefit concerts nationwide. Our Relief & Resiliency Outreach provides complete support to those recovering from trauma and loss during times of urgent need. At our Invincible Spirit Festivals, military medical hospital patients and staff are treated to a day-long respite from the struggles of recovery with a barbecue by Celebrity Chef Robert Irvine, a Lt. Dan Band concert, and a fun, fair-like atmosphere for the whole family. Our Serving Heroes program is serving up classic American meals to service members at the USO Los Angeles, USO Dallas/Fort Worth, USO Las Vegas, USO San Diego and USO Great Lakes. Through our Arts & Entertainment Outreach, veterans may attend the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles or Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago and join the cast for dinner and a dress rehearsal performance free of charge. Finally, with the Jos A. Bank "Uniform for Success" promotion we have distributed over 7,000 new suits to veterans, servicemen and women empowering them for success as they transition into civilian life.
There is still so much to do. Very simply, if every neighborhood in every community in every town and city in every state would make it a priority to seek out, identify, serve and honor the needs of the veterans and military families within those communities, we will have the problem solved.