Gary Sinise is best known to most Americans for his portrayal of Lt. Dan Taylor in the Oscar-winning film Forrest Gump. But to real soldiers fighting for America, Sinise is no act; he’s a hero.
By David Cummings
It’s 7:30 in the morning in Los Angeles, and Gary Sinise 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; 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” 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 at the Great Lakes Naval Base. I was working with Vietnam veterans. That was a tough 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 primary 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 of 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’s main concern was 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 to 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 that soldiers are taught over the years to suck up and push on. He cautions multiple deployments have created a new battle. Seeing buddies lost or blown up, or perhaps being shot or blown up yourself, are traumatic experiences that are hard to overcome. Spending a career supporting soldiers has hardened Sinise to the 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.
Peter 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 many soldiers.”
Another catalyst to Sinise’s desire to support soldiers was the September 11 terrorist attacks. The assaults sparked a flame of unity throughout the nation. It also emboldened Sinise 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.” He increased 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 build the foundation. Juliette Otter, the Chief Operating Officer of Sinise’s foundation, says her boss’s actions show his commitment. She estimated some years Sinise spent over 200 days on the road, 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.”