By David Lemont
It’s 7:30 in the morning in Los Angeles and Gary Sinise is up in his home office on the phone. He’s not talking to a director or studio head about potential scripts or movie opportunities. He’s speaking with a reporter, explaining the passion and history behind his support for all members of the United States Military branches.
On the surface it seems natural. The roles Sinise has played in films and television series from Lt. Dan Taylor in “Forrest Gump,” President Harry S. Truman in “Truman,” the astronaut Ken Mattingly in “Apollo 13,” detective Mac Taylor in the CBS series “CSI: NY,” and his latest role, reprising agent Jack Garrett from the TV show “Criminal Minds” in the latest version, “Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders,” all have a military or government connection. Sinise is even the voice of the Mission: Space ride at Epcot in Disney World. His acting career is nearing its fourth decade. His Oscar-nominated portrayal of the disabled veteran Lt. Dan endeared him to moviegoers. The role hit close to home, too. Growing up outside Chicago, Sinise was a frequent visitor to the Great Lakes Naval Base, which is about an hour drive north on I-94 from the Windy City. “I was very involved with the Vietnam Veterans back in the ‘80s,” Sinise says. “I dealt with a lot of Vietnam Veterans struggling with Post Traumatic Stress with the VA at the Great Lakes Naval Base. I was working with Vietnam Veterans. That was a very difficult war for so many soldiers. They had to deal with the combat in the jungles of Vietnam and then coming back home to a nation that spit on them when they returned.”
Success as an actor never diminished Sinise’s desire to support the military; it only increased his resolve to promote the importance of helping the troops. For years his main tool was the Lt. Dan Band (named after his character in Forrest Gump). Sinise started the band in 2004 and it has played over 300 concerts to raise troops spirits at bases around the world and awareness to the need of our active and retired soldiers. He expanded his effort five years ago when he launched the Gary Sinise Foundation in 2011. The foundation is another way for Sinise to honor veterans and first responders and their families through multiple programs and efforts. He probably spent over 200 days on the road during the first two years building the foundation. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, Sinise says most of his work with the military was geared toward soldiers returning home from combat deployments. He never forgot the experience of working with Vietnam Vets at Great Lakes, and wanted to do all he could to help soldiers feel welcomed and supported when they returned home from a deployment or fulfilled their military obligation. He started focusing on wounded veterans after playing Lt. Dan in Forrest Gump. Recently, he has joined the fight against Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, determined to help vets deal with the stress and trauma of war. “We all know the statistics,” Sinise says. “We have veterans committing suicide at an alarming rate. I’ve always looked at my role since I started visiting troops in war zones or at bases around the world was to help boost their mental health and raise their spirits. I want to make our men and women in the military feel better and let them know there are folks out there who care about them.”
He’s showing that concern by joining with military leaders to start a national movement to eliminate the word disorder from the acronym PTSD, especially when it comes to soldiers and veterans. The goal is to have PTSD referred as Post Traumatic Stress, or PTS. “It’s a traumatic thing when you are dealing with soldiers and people trained to be very, very tough and very, very strong and not be vulnerable,” Sinise says. “You need all the tools you can get to help them adjust to life after combat.” Sinise argues soldiers are taught over the years to suck up and push on. He cautions multiple deployments over years of war have created a new battle. The challenge after combat, and dealing with the effects and trauma of seeing buddies lost or blown up, or perhaps being shot or blown up yourself. Spending a career supporting soldiers has hardened Sinise to the facts of life of war. “You don’t want to stigmatize a soldier who is trained to be very strong and all of a sudden label them with a disorder because of their service,” he says.
Pete Chiarelli, a retired four-star general, is a Sinise admirer. Chiarelli was once the Commander, Multi-National Corps-Iraq, where he coordinated the day-to-day combat operations of American and coalition troops. He is currently the CEO of One Mind, a nonprofit focused on finding solutions to brain injuries. “People like Gary Sinise understand the impact trauma has on soldiers,” Chiarelli says. “The work he does helps a lot of soldiers.”
The September 11 assaults on the Twin Towers in New York City, the Pentagon in Washington D.C., and Flight 93 in Pennsylvania sparked a flame of unity throughout the nation. It also emboldened Sinise to do more. He says 9/11 was a new catalyst for him to support our active duty soldiers who were deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq, and other military outposts. This was his chance to make sure modern day soldiers knew they were appreciated. “What happened to our Vietnam Veterans was not going to happen to them,” Sinise says. “I wanted to make sure they were going to know people cared and were worried about them.”
Sinise stepped up his visits and performances with the Lt. Dan Band. He juggled shooting CSI NY and traveling on weekends for concerts and fundraisers. When CSI NY went off the air in 2013 after a nine-year run, Sinise dedicated all of his efforts to building the foundation. Juliette Otter, the executive director of the Gary Sinise Foundation, says her boss’s actions spoke to his commitment. She estimated Sinise spent over 200 a days on the road in 2014, traveling across the country and around the world to make connections and drum up support. If he had a trip on the East Coast, Sinise would sometimes visit three cities over the course of three days, meeting with military leaders and potential corporate donors. “When we ask Gary to do something he does it,” Otter says. “He is committed to helping families and soldiers.”
The residual affects of over 15 years of war have created a lot of need in the military community. Sinise has seen those needs and wants to tackle them directly. He’s not reluctant to admit that his celebrity gives him access and is not afraid to use his name to get to executives and leaders who can support the cause. He said visiting troops in war zones and making hospital visits keeps his eyes open that the war is not over. “We still have troops in harm’s way, they’re still getting killed, they’re still getting hurt,” he says. “They may not be on the front page anymore, unless a big giant catastrophe happens where we loose a bunch of soldiers. Keeping awareness up and making sure to shine a light on them is the way I can help bring attention to things. I can use the public platform I have on real American heroes. Our soldiers. People who are out there are not asking for much, but giving a lot.”